NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. Another challenge that this country has been facing over the last year that has gotten much less attention. The Department of Justice is deeply concerned about the growing extent of China's espionage operations. NPR's Ryan Lucas covers the DOJ, and he's been talking to people there. Ryan, thanks for coming in.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: My pleasure.
KING: So the U.S. is worried about espionage. What did you learn is happening?
LUCAS: Well, obviously, a lot of the focus publicly has been on the Mueller investigation over this past year, but a lot has been going on the China espionage front. It's an issue that comes up in conversations that I have with folks at the Justice Department, at the FBI, on Capitol Hill. It comes up again and again. And we're talking about two things here - China's targeting of U.S. government secrets, which qualifies as traditional espionage, and then China's stealing of trade secrets, intellectual property, stuff like that from American companies, U.S. labs and universities. That is economic espionage. Both are obviously important, but national security officials say that the economic side of this is really a huge problem. Here is FBI Director Chris Wray talking about this earlier this year at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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CHRIS WRAY: At the FBI, we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our 56 field offices. And they span just about every industry or sector.
KING: Just about every industry or sector is really interesting to think about, No. 1, but I know that you went and you looked through the cases that the DOJ brought in 2019 that were related to China. What kinds of cases were they?
LUCAS: So these cases can take a long time to develop. So in some of them, the alleged crimes took place even several years ago. That said, in 2019, there were at least seven convictions or guilty pleas in cases related to China. Three of the guilty pleas are of particular note because they involve traditional espionage, so going after American government secrets. Two former U.S. intelligence officers pleaded guilty to spying for China. One had worked for the CIA, the other had worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Another former government employee, a woman who worked at the State Department, also pleaded guilty.
I sat down a few months ago with John Demers. He's in charge of the National Security Division at the Justice Department, which handles these cases. And he told me that having multiple cases going on at the same time in which Americans are suspected of having been co-opted by a foreign intelligence service - in this case, China - is unprecedented.
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JOHN DEMERS: When you start to think that through, it gives you a glimpse into how pervasive the effort is. So there is significant Chinese intelligence activity occurring in the United States right now.
KING: So he's pointing to the fact that some of these cases were resolved in 2019, but there are still a lot of them that are unresolved, yeah?
LUCAS: Right, right. There were more than 20 people or companies charged in cases that were in some way related to China in 2019. There are big ones that did get media coverage, such as the charges against the Chinese tech giant Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. But for me, it's the cases that don't get a lot of attention that are in many ways more interesting. They speak to the breadth and the scope of what American officials say China is trying to do through economic espionage, which, as Demers has said publicly, is steal American technology, replicate it and then replace U.S. products and companies in the international marketplace.
KING: So if steal, replicate and replace is the game, how do we see that in cases from the past year?
LUCAS: Well, take the case against a Chinese national who worked at Monsanto. That's the big agro chemical company. He's accused of trying to steal an algorithm called the Nutrient Optimizer. It's an algorithm in Monsanto software that farmers use to increase their productivity. There's another case in Tennessee in which two women - one Chinese, the other American - were charged with trying to steal the formula for BPA-free coating in tin cans. There's another case in upstate New York in which two men - one Chinese, one American - were charged with stealing turbine technology from General Electric to benefit China. Now, once China gets its hands on this intellectual property, this technology, U.S. officials say it is gone. This is a problem for the FBI. It's a problem for the Justice Department. They were busy with it in 2019. And they say that they are going to be busy with it in 2020 and beyond.
KING: Very high stakes there. NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.