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Over eight days in April, the US charged individuals linked with China with offences ranging from siphoning off American nuclear reactor technology and smuggling military-grade carbon fibre to trying to illegally export underwater vehicle designs.
Together, the charges highlight a new strategy for the Department of Justice.
Officials say they are now treating as crimes activities that once were regarded as routine government-to-government jousting. To do so, prosecutors are marrying intelligence operations, including electronic eavesdropping approved under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with traditional law enforcement tactics.
“It’s bringing more than the traditional criminal process to bear,” said Nick Oldham, a former federal prosecutor now at King & Spalding in Washington. “The shift is a tidal wave.”
The flurry of activity in April underscores the DoJ’s redoubled focus on stopping foreign governments from obtaining “national assets” held by US companies. Prosecutors and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have retooled their counter-intelligence efforts based on assessments of an evolving economic espionage and arms proliferation threat.
“We still do the traditional spy cases,” said John Carlin, assistant attorney-general for national security. “But a lot of the cases now are not traditional espionage, insofar as they’re not necessarily a trained member of the other country’s spy service. Instead, they’re getting the information by cyber-enabled means or stealing it by bribing an insider.”
The justice department two years ago restructured its national security division to devote more attention to export control violations, sanctions enforcement, trade secrets theft and cyber espionage, broadening the unit’s focus beyond the terrorism cases that long had dominated its agenda.
The aim was to counter a foreign intelligence threat that the DoJ’s strategic plan labels “more complex and less predictable”.
In two recent cases, Amin Yu, a Chinese citizen and permanent resident of the US, and Szuhsiung Ho, a naturalised American citizen who had been born in China and worked for a state-owned Chinese company, were charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.
Ms Yu, a businesswoman in Ohio and Florida, was accused of spending more than 12 years helping a university affiliated with the Chinese military evade US export controls to obtain advanced underwater vehicle technology. Mr Ho, a nuclear engineer and consultant, allegedly sought US reactor technology for China’s largest state-owned nuclear power company in a conspiracy that spanned 19 years.
Both Ms Yu and Mr Ho have pleaded not guilty.
In a third case, Fuyi Sun, operating from China, allegedly tried to purchase for the People’s Liberation Army military-grade carbon fibre produced by Toray Industries. The high-strength, lightweight material, used in missiles, aircraft and nuclear centrifuges, cannot be exported to China without a government licence, which Mr Sun lacked.
He has yet to enter a plea.
At the heart of all three cases were charges other than traditional espionage, such as export control law violations. Those convicted of such crimes, especially on multiple counts, face lengthy prison sentences. Mr Ho, for example, could suffer a life sentence if convicted of conspiracy to unlawfully produce and develop special nuclear material outside the US. By filing non-espionage charges, prosecutors also may avoid disclosing as evidence sensitive national security information.
Though the recent trio of cases involved China, prosecutors have also prosecuted individuals on export charges for attempting to ship controlled products to India, Russia and elsewhere.
In 2014, the DoJ created a new principal deputy assistant attorney-general position to oversee the national assets initiative; renamed its counter-espionage section as the counter intelligence and export control unit; and boosted its ranks of cyber specialists in field offices.
Officials such as Mr Carlin have also been speaking to audiences around the country to encourage companies to report cyber intrusions.
“What’s key is not just any particular nation state, but that we view export control violations and the theft of trade secrets by any nation state actor as national security because they affect the health of our economy,” said Mr Carlin.