Countering Foreign Espionage Requires Better US Cooperation—Rep. Jim Banks

March 30, 2019 Updated: April 7, 2019

Espionage and influence operations by foreign nations, notably China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, pose a serious threat to America’s security.

In this installment of American Thought Leaders, Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek talks with Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, who serves on both the House Education and Labor, and Armed Services committees, about how the United States can better defend itself against these threats.

Banks discusses the need for greater cooperation among U.S. agencies as well as the threats posed by Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE, and also about how legislation that Banks recently introduced, the bipartisan “Protect Our Universities Act of 2019,” fits into all of this.

Jan Jekielek: You recently introduced the Protect Our Universities Act of 2019, which I thought was fascinating, especially because it has to do with basically preventing theft of sensitive information as it’s described by foreign nations, and you single out China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. I guess my question is: Aren’t there safeguards to prevent this already?

Rep. Jim Banks: Sadly, not nearly enough. Recently, there have been a number of reports about the growing influence of espionage, especially from China, on our college campuses, which also host sensitive research funded by the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and other intelligence agencies. What we’ve learned is that those safeguards don’t exist. That was the impetus for introducing our bill. There was a recent report that said that the Confucius Institutes on 100 different college campuses in America had received over $158 million of funding. And we know that there is a concerted effort, by China especially, to target those colleges that also perform sensitive research.

Our bill has three main parts, but all of those parts are better safeguards to protect our secrets, our research, and even to protect the influence that these Chinese entities have on college campuses that oftentimes are sought to normalize their behavior, and normalize the actions of Chinese companies like Huawei or ZTE. Our bill dives into a lot of that. I’m happy to talk more in depth about each of those parts.

Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t we jump into that. You have these three prongs, right? One is that you’re going have an interdepartmental task force, led by the Department of Education. The second one looks at foreign nationals working at universities. The third part is certain technologies being specifically looked at so they can’t be compromised.

Rep. Banks: Let’s start with the task force. Yesterday, we questioned acting Defense Secretary [Patrick] Shanahan in the House Armed Services Committee, and, uniquely, I serve on the Armed Services Committee and I serve on the Education Committee in the House. So, I have an interesting vantage point in questioning officials from both the Department of Education and the Department of Defense. So, yesterday we had acting Secretary Shanahan and I asked him point-blank, “Have you ever engaged with [Department of Education] Secretary [Betsy] DeVos about the growing influence of espionage on college campuses by Chinese entities like Confucius Institutes, Huawei, and other entities. And his answer was a big, fat “no.” That’s startling in and of itself.

Now, the Defense Department has a task force of its own that dives into these issues, but they don’t relate well or involve the Department of Education. And because the Department of Education is intimately involved in these issues—a number of their reporting requirements go through the Department of Education—we found that they’re very ill-equipped to address these very serious issues. That’s what our task force would require them to do.

Last summer, I wrote a letter to Secretary DeVos and encouraged her to dive more deeply into these issues to receive a briefing from the Intelligence Committee, which she did, and also to encourage her to set up a task force like this. Nothing has happened since then. That’s why we introduced the bill to force the Department of Education, if they’re not going to do it on their own … And I understand they have a lot of other issues that the Department of Education is involved with. This isn’t a traditional role of the secretary of Education, not something that maybe any other secretary of Education has ever dived into before. But if they’re not going to do it on their own, Congress needs to force them to do it instead.

Mr. Jekielek: So do you feel the awareness is already there, just the cooperation between the departments? Because this issue affects almost every department, it would seem. Is that the biggest issue: the cooperation?

Rep. Banks: Well, when it comes to college campuses specifically, college campuses are such a natural home for this type of sensitive research. Something that, by the way, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Committee want to continue to rely on college campuses to perform this type of sensitive research, because it’s valuable to the cause. When it comes to that, the Department of Education needs to be more aware of the threat, and needs to find ways to create better safeguards. There are a handful of reporting requirements, so when Huawei gives a grant to a college campus, that has to be recorded or reported to the Department of Education. But we need to set up better parameters to protect the infiltration of that type of research that occurs on those campuses to better protect our secrets—our intellectual property—but also our intelligence and national security secrets as well.

Mr. Jekielek: OK. Why do you single out Huawei and ZTE, for example?

Rep. Banks: There’s no question that these entities are snakes in the grass, if you will. These entities, they’re active in this regard, especially Huawei, in giving tens of millions of dollars to American universities. That is a part of a larger scheme to infiltrate the very fabric of American institutions, including college campuses. So, it’s easy to single them out because we know what their tactics are. Many of us have been briefed both on the unclassified side and the classified side on the types of activities these entities are up to.

Now, that being said, in the last National Defense Authorization Act, which we passed last year, we banned these technologies from being used on military installations. So, a simple question to get to a second part of the bill: Why would we not ban their use on college campuses when directly related to our DOD and intelligence community-funded sensitive research at the same time. It’s a no-brainer that that’s what we should do.

Mr. Jekielek: For the benefit of our audiences, what’s the difference between Huawei and ZTE and say, perhaps, a comparable U.S. company?

Rep. Banks: You know that you’re probably getting beyond my technical expertise of what these telecommunications companies do and what they’re capable of.

Mr. Jekielek:  More like about their role in society.

Rep. Banks: At the end of the day, they are companies that are funded by the Chinese Communist Party, which says in and of itself, that they have a motive that’s very different than any American company that is operating in a capitalistic environment in the United States. So they have a motive to infiltrate the United States, in this case, seeking to obtain sensitive research or information that can be best used for the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Jekielek: So, what do you make of a number of European countries—I believe Germany is seriously exploring this—kind of opening the door? Given what you’re saying, it seems almost ludicrous.

Rep. Banks: It’s deeply troubling [that] Germany, especially, would adopt Huawei or ZTE as part of their 5G solution. I was in Munich last month with Vice President Pence, who gave what I thought was a historic speech. And he warned our European allies that if you choose to turn to the East, you’re doing it as a slap in the face to the United States of America and the West. And we won’t stand by idly and watch our allies choose Huawei or ZTE as a solution [that isn’t] in the best interest of the United States and the Western world and Western values. This administration has been tough on that note, and they’ve put the word out to our allies that we won’t stand by idly if they make that poor decision.

Mr. Jekielek: As you say, this isn’t just a slap in the face to America. It feels like a slap in the face to their citizenry. This is a much bigger deal than any one nation.

Rep. Banks:  If China doesn’t respect the human rights of their own people, why would we think that they would respect the human rights or the privacy of Americans or any European country that would choose to operate using technologies from companies like Huawei or ZTE. [They] are snakes in the grass that are being used as tools of espionage on behalf of the Chinese communist government to seek out information that is useful to China. It’s a no-brainer to ban these entities, at the very least, from being involved in sensitive research on college campuses, which is a small step. These [are] small steps that our bill seeks to take.

Mr. Jekielek: Among the issues that this bill addresses is basically foreign nationals from, specifically, these four nations that you identify. Why did you pick these four nations?

Rep. Banks: These four nations—North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China—are clearly our greatest adversaries on the global stage today. And for that reason—and because we know their tactics and capabilities—we know that these are the countries that would seek to infiltrate important or sensitive research of the United States and that they could gain from that infiltration or espionage. It makes great sense that we would create better safeguards for foreign nationals from those countries from being involved in sensitive research.

So, we take a small step as far as the third part of our bill—to ban those foreign national students from being involved in sensitive research outside of their scope of study, by the way. We also create a caveat that these students can go to the Director of National Intelligence and receive a waiver, if the DNI determines that these students, for some reason, should be involved in that research. This is a common-sense step, to protect our secrets by banning those students who have no business being involved in this type of research to begin with.

Mr. Jekielek: What is it that alerted you to the need for this in the first place? You mentioned that there’s no safeguards. That sounds very troubling.

Rep. Banks: Well, maybe not to go that far. There certainly aren’t sufficient safeguards to protect our research. I think what the the epiphany for me was the letter that we wrote to Secretary DeVos, and a better understanding that the Secretary of Education—who has a major job that doesn’t dive deeply into national security issues—doesn’t have senior-level aides who even have security clearances to be briefed in a classified setting about some of these important subjects.

Mr. Jekielek: Like the Confucius Institutes.

Rep. Banks: Like the Confucius Institutes, that’s right. So, the epiphany for me was better understanding the lack of resources at the Department of Education, the lack of time or availability to become better invested in these issues. So, that was an important moment for me, again, having a foot in both worlds—Department of Education and serving on the Armed Services Committee, working with the Pentagon.

And then, over the past year, the growing number of stories in a number of publications, including our very own, that have dived into this subject as well, about the unprotected nature of our sensitive research that occurs on so many campuses around the country. Once again, 100 universities of America receiving over $158 million in funding from Confucius Institutes alone is an alarming figure.

Now, if there is one good note, it’s that in the weeks since we’ve introduced this piece of legislation, more universities in America have become aware of the problem than before. We’re hearing from a number of universities that are concerned that have influences of Confucius Institutes, or they’ve received large Huawei grants and are beginning to figure out that they need to unravel themselves from that influence. And that’s a good thing.

We want more universities to 1) become aware and 2) find ways to quickly drop these entities and these influences on their campus. We’re going to find other ways to force them to do that as well. I mean there are many many colleges around the country that receive other types of DOD-funded grants. They should choose one or the other. Either receive grants for the research or cut ties with these different entities; that’s what we want to encourage them to do. And many of them are.

Mr. Jekielek: So you’re basically seeking to empower the Department of Education here to be able to handle this?

Rep. Banks: In many ways, yes. Absolutely. To empower them to do that, but also to bring the right people to the table as an interagency function, so that the Department of Education is interacting with the intelligence community—with the Pentagon—to better understand the threat and how to address it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow Jan on Twitter: @JanJekielek