Sasse on Chinese Spying: ‘We Can’t Sleep On This Threat’

Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) warned that the United States "can't sleep" on Chinese spying. The Nebraska senator made the remarks after a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the threat of China’s non-traditional espionage efforts on Thursday.

"Too many folks in Washington cling to an imaginary distinction between Chinese businesses and the Chinese Communist Party," Sasse said. "This is much, much bigger than corporate ‘cheating’ or old-school spy-vs-spy tactics. China wants to win a fight before it starts by leveraging every tool at Chairman Xi’s disposal – sometimes that means using the state and sometimes that means using Chinese citizens and businesses. We can’t sleep on this threat. The Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI gets this and is trying to bring urgency to the challenge."

During the hearing, Sasse questioned Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division, about how China thinks of its citizens who live abroad, such as students and corporate executives.

"In my opinion, they think of them as being beholden to them. They think of them just simply as an extension of their power, of their nation," Priestap said.

Sasse followed up by asking about the extent to which these individuals living in the U.S. understand how they are viewed as assets by the Chinese government.

"Some I think are not knowledgeable in the least and are completely unwitting of doing anything in furtherance of their government aims. And, others either through direct or other softly applied pressure understand that they have obligations to meet," Priestap said.

Sasse then asked about how the U.S. government communicates with Chinese nationals who come to the U.S. and are pressured to break laws or become involved with espionage.

Priestap said the U.S. response to the Chinese espionage threat has to be coordinated better.

"Obviously we have three separate branches [of government] intentionally, but if we're facing a whole of government, some call it a whole of society [threat] – not meaning every person in the society is posing the threat but people from all walks of life – you can't effectively combat that threat with ad hoc responses. We need more people in government, more people in business, more people in academia pulling in the same direction to combat this threat effectively," he said.

Last week, Sasse praised the arrest of a Chinese telecommunications CFO:

China is working creatively to undermine our national security interests, and the United States and our allies can’t sit on the sidelines. Sometimes Chinese aggression is explicitly state-sponsored and sometimes it’s laundered through many of Beijing’s so-called ‘private’ sector entities that are in bed with Xi’s communist party. Americans are grateful that our Canadian partners have arrested the Chief Financial Officer of a giant Chinese telecom company for breaking U.S. sanctions against Iran.