National Security

Chinese Officers Used ‘Fake’ Think Tank To Recruit Agents In America, DOJ Alleges

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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The Department of Justice unveiled allegations against Chinese nationals, including three intelligence officers working for China’s state security agency, of using a fake think tank to recruit espionage agents in the U.S. on Monday.

The indictment accuses Wang Lin and three others of a “wide-ranging and systematic effort” to recruit U.S. citizens, including professors at U.S. universities and a former federal law enforcement and state homeland security official, as well as others, to conduct espionage activities on behalf of the Chinese government’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). For at least a decade, the individuals used the Institute for International Studies (IIS) at the Ocean University of China, which Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco described as a “fake think tank,” as a front for their intelligence operations.

The case, along with two others outlined Monday, highlights “the threat the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government poses to our institutions and the rights of people in the United States,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement.

The PRC often targets U.S.-based think tanks and universities to further its malign goals, including through the Thousand Talents Program. For example, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prominent D.C. think tank, employs at least 20 scholars who are members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Wang Lin styled himself as the director of ISS; however, since 1997 through at least 2018 he has orchestrated Chinese clandestine activity in the U.S., according to court filings. (RELATED: Stanford Professors Ask DOJ To Stop Program Looking For Chinese Spies Over ‘Racial Profiling’ Concerns)

Targets had access to sensitive information and equipment, the indictment alleges.

Chinese operatives targeted one individual, a professor who also was a former law enforcement and homeland security official, by inviting the person on two all-expenses-paid trips to China, once in 2008 and once in 2018, according to the indictment. On those trips, the Chinese officials encouraged the target to supply sensitive fingerprint technology and information.

They also requested that the target assist with suppressing protests along the 2008 Olympic Games torch route in the U.S., events that they claimed would “embarrass” China, according to the indictment.

In addition, they pressured the target to sign a contract with an unnamed Chinese company that explicitly aimed to “protect the national interest and Chinese enterprises’ overseas interest[s]” and to “build sources and channels to collect security information,” the indictment said. However, the target recognized Wang Lin and the others as attempting to recruit him and refused the offers.

Wang Lin and Bi Hongwei, another of the MSS intelligence officers, also instructed a coconspirator in New Jersey to funnel U.S. currency to a designated recipient in the same state, which the coconspirator subsequently accomplished.

The MSS is responsible both for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities as well as internal government security, according to the court filing.

“We will not tolerate these brazen operations,” including “the attempt to recruit agents for the PRC under the cover of a front academic organization,” Olsen said.

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