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Espionage on campus

By M.D. Kittle 

Wisconsin Spotlight | Dec. 11, 2020 

MADISON — Amid growing concerns about Chinese espionage on U.S. soil, a Wisconsin congressman wants to know whether the Badger State’s flagship university is working with federal law enforcement to “guard against foreign intelligence operatives on campus,” 

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) sent a letter this week to University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank outlining his concerns about efforts from China’s spies to steal America’s riches of research — advanced scientific, medical, industrial and cutting-edge technology — from U.S. institutions of higher education.  

“This makes our most elite campuses — such as the University of Wisconsin — a top target for foreign intelligence sources,” he wrote. 

Director of National Intelligence John Radcliffe in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed wrote that the People’s Republic of China is “the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II.” 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison boasts 3,200 students from Communist China, making up a majority of the institution’s international student enrollment, Tiffany notes in his letter to Blank. Students from China made up 25 percent of international student enrollment at the UW just 20 years ago. 

“Given the growing scope of Chinese espionage and the increasing frequency with which these efforts involve Chinese students and academics on U.S. visas, I would like to know what affirmative steps U.W.-Madison administrators have taken to facilitate cooperation with FBI and Department of Homeland Security counter-espionage efforts, as well as any other proactive measures university officials may have put in place to guard against foreign intelligence operatives on campus,” Tiffany wrote. 

A UW-Madison spokeswoman said the university had just received the letter and has not yet responded to the congressman. Administrators expect to respond next week.

Tiffany’s letter comes in the wake of a salacious spy case in the halls of Congress. Axios this week reported U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) had been in a relationship with a woman suspected of being a Chinese espionage operative. She raised money for his 2014 campaign, and placed an intern in his congressional office, the news outlet reported.

Tiffany noted the high-profile case of a Chinese researcher working on artificial intelligence at UCLA who “threw a damaged computer and hard drive in a dumpster” after being stopped by FBI agents at Los Angeles International Airport. His finance, a Chinese national studying computer science at the University of California-Irvine was arrested “running through the Los Angeles airport.” 

In another incident, a scientist at the University of Virginia was detained as he attempted to board a China-bound flight in Chicago with “proprietary software code under development for two decades [with] U.S. Navy funding.” 

University of Texas professor Bo Mao used his status as a professor to steal tech from a Silicon Valley start-up, turning it over to Huawei, China’s telecomm titan, according to prosecutors. Mao, who was a visiting professor from China, recently pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of making a false statement. He was expected to be sentenced to time served and ordered to go back to China. 

“America’s world class university system has become a soft target in the global espionage war with China, intelligence officials say — and they are pressing universities to do something about it,” reported NBC News in February. 

Tiffany is pressing, too. 

“It is imperative that we work together to guard intellectual property and other proprietary material,” he wrote to UW-Madison’s chancellor. 

Read Rep. Tiffany’s letter here. 

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