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Senators warn the U.S. is incapable of protecting American innovation from foreign intel agents

Federal lawmakers said Wednesday they feared that the U.S. government is failing to protect private businesses, academia and students from foreign intelligence officers looking to steal research and technology, and spread their influence deep into American society. 

The Senate Intelligence Committee members expressed particular concern about China, issuing a report this week showing a disconnect between where national security information resides and what the government is authorized to protect. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said federal agencies were not developed for the current era of cyber intrusions, complicated misinformation and disinformation challenges, and China’s willingness to play a long game. 

“It’s a long-range plan to look at someone who’s 20 years old today and say, ‘We can shape their narrative about China and Taiwan or China and Tibet or China and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang today — 20 years from now these individuals will be running companies or key agencies in government, maybe even elected, and that will help us,’” Mr. Rubio said at an intelligence committee hearing.

The report relied upon dozens of current and former counterintelligence officials who found that foreign intelligence entities are no longer only interested in state secrets but now want information from federal agencies outside the intelligence community and data held by businesses and universities. 

“The impact of all these challenges is clear: foreign adversaries compromise U.S. assets across the globe, acquire billions of dollars a year in U.S. research and technology, jeopardize the competitiveness of U.S. companies and the economic dominance of the United States, steal sensitive [personally identifiable information] on USG employees and U.S. citizens, and interfere in domestic affairs,” the report said. “The USG cannot allow this situation to continue without serious repercussions for U.S. national security.” 

The alarms about foreign intelligence efforts against Americans outside of the intelligence community prompted lawmakers to take action, according to the intelligence committee’s chairman, Sen. Mark Warner. 

The Virginia Democrat said the committee convened a series of classified sessions between the intelligence community and leaders from business and academia to brief them on China’s effort.

Mr. Rubio said in written remarks the FBI must do more outreach and collaboration to warn schools and companies about the threat from China. 

When the FBI gets involved, it is often too late to prevent damage, according to William R. Evanina, former director of U.S. counterintelligence. 

“In this area of vulnerabilities of espionage and technology transfers, the Department of Energy, due to their span of critical research including advanced dual-use technologies and nuclear weapons, might be the single most critical department/agency at risk,” Mr. Evanina told the committee in written remarks. “When the FBI becomes involved … the damage is already done. The data our adversaries were seeking has left our shores to benefit our adversaries militarily and commercially.”

The Department of Energy has received fresh scrutiny for its handling of research and development. Earlier this week, two Republican senators said they urged the department’s inspector general to investigate why the department allegedly handed over expensive advanced battery technology to China. 

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