President Trump met with China's President Xi at the G-20 summit in Argentina this weekend. There's been rising tension between the US and China...mainly over trade. But top US officials say the biggest threat from China is spying that ends up costing American taxpayers jobs and billions of dollars. Scott Thuman recently talked to Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center...about China capitalizing on stolen secrets.
Scott Thuman: How big is the problem of Chinese spying?
Bill Evanina: We look at it from the perspective of a threat, and what’s our vulnerability and we put China ranked, number one. Their ability to steal our intellectual property and trade secrets has dramatic impact. We’re looking at hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
Scott Thuman: Russia’s so often in the headlines when it comes to spying and stealing. Is China way ahead of them?
Bill Evanina: It’s not even close. I wouldn’t even put them in the same league. Russia has their own challenges, don’t get me wrong. But the long term existential threat to our nation is clearly China. Xi, the president has a 2025 plan, which is open. He’s not been shy about saying that in 2025 we want to produce 90% of the following technologies. Semiconductors, nanotechnology, hybrid technology, autonomous vehicles, food, grain, seed.
Scott Thuman: The best way to get their hands on our innovations, Evanina says, is to steal them. Sometimes, Chinese nationals infiltrate American companies. Other times, it's hackers. And then, there are Americans selling our secrets from within.
Bill Evanina: What’s called the non-traditional collector, the scientist, the engineer, the academic professor, someone who is working in your company that has the ability to have the keys of the kingdom, or how you make your secret sauce. Voice: Im very reticent to let you have it because it’s classified, but I’ll let you see it and you can take all the notes you want.
Scott Thuman: More than a decade ago, the FBI captured a rare, first-hand look at espionage. The driver -a Pentagon worker with a high security clerance. He's sitting next to a spy for China. Voice: Is that ok? Are you sure? Scott...who's paying him for secrets. Both of these men went to prison.
Scott Thuman: You’ve had six current or former US government officials that have been charged with espionage related violations involving China. So it’s happening where you have American citizens who are helping the Chinese?
Bill Evanina: Those 6, they came from FBI, CIA, NSA, State Department and the army. They betrayed their country. China uses social media platforms very effectively to not target not only current federal employees, but former employees who are now contractors who put on their linkedin site or their facebook site that I have this clearance, that clearance, they send out a bogus email inviting you over to China, an all expense paid trip for a conference.
Scott Thuman: It's estimated that the US lost 450 billion dollars from economic espionage in 2015, mostly by China. That's the same year the US and China declared something of a cease-fire.
President Obama, 2015: We’ve agreed that neither the US or the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage.
Scott Thuman: The spying, didn't slow for long. Last month, the Justice Department indicted a Chinese firm for conspiring to steal secrets from US based Micron Technology, a maker of new-age memory chips. The value of those trade secrets...nearly 9 billion dollars. Sinovel..a Chinese Wind Turbine maker. This year, was convicted of stealing secrets from an American company - costing 800 million dollars.
Bill Evanina: Now, China is selling those windmills back to US based cities and towns and locations, which just makes it even worse. It’s put salt in the wound.
Scott: We’re paying for products that we developed and they stole?
Bill Evanina: That’s correct.
Scott: And we’re buying it from them?
Bill Evanina: That’s correct.
Scott Thuman: The American military is also a target. The US spent a trillion dollars perfecting the F-35 fighter jet. China stole the blueprints and unveiled the J31, which looks an awful lot like the F-35.
Scott: So the secrets, the research, the weapons that our military has been working on to create for weapons, whatever else it may be. That's getting stolen too?
Bill Evanina: That’s correct We look back over the last year or two years, they're going to see a lot of doj indictments in charges or individually. A lot of that is from military stealth technology. If you look at the numbers that now, just generally, I think the FBI has charged or indicted at least 20 people, uh, in the last six months just from China alone. If we are lucky, we get an arrest made, that's all well and good, but the damage is already done. The data has left.
Scott Thuman: China has claimed to have a deep friendship with the US. Do friends spy on each other?
Bill Evanina: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think China, they’re too successful to stop stealing our trade secrets, intellectual property and we don’t see them stopping doing that.
Last month, the Attorney General’s office announced a China Initiative, specifically created to combat espionage. But what could speak even louder is the recent extradition of an accused Chinese spy. It’s the first time a Chinese official was brought to the US to be prosecuted...and is said to be evidence that the US will be taking new action to crack down on spying.