While most international students, researchers and professors come to the U.S. for legitimate reasons, universities are an “ideal place” for foreign intelligence services “to find recruits, propose and nurture ideas, learn and even steal research data, or place trainees,” according to a 2011 FBI report.
In one instance described in the report, the hosts of an international conference invited a U.S. researcher to submit a paper. When she gave her talk at the conference, they requested a copy, hooked a thumb drive to her laptop and downloaded every file. In another, an Asian graduate student arranged for researchers back home to visit an American university lab and take unauthorized photos of equipment so they could reconstruct it, the report said.
A foreign scientist’s military background or purpose isn’t always apparent. Accustomed to hosting visiting scholars, Professor Daniel J. Scheeres didn’t hesitate to grant a request several years ago by Yu Xiaohong to study with him at the University of Michigan. She expressed a “pretty general interest” in Scheeres’s work on topics such as movement of celestial bodies in space, he said in a telephone interview.
Unaware of Credentials
She cited an affiliation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a civilian organization, Scheeres said. The Beijing address Yu listed in the Michigan online directory is the same as the Academy of Equipment Command & Technology, where instructors train Chinese military cadets and officers. Scheeres said he wasn’t aware of that military connection, nor that Yu co-wrote a 2004 article on improving the precision of anti- satellite weapons.
Once Yu arrived, her questions made him uncomfortable, said Scheeres, who now teaches at the University of Colorado. As a result, he stopped accepting visiting scholars from China.
“It was pretty clear to me that the stuff she was interested in probably had some military satellite-orbit applications,” he said. “Once I saw that, I didn’t really tell her anything new, or anything that couldn’t be published. I didn’t engage that deeply with her.”
Wrote About NASA
Yu later wrote a paper on the implications for space warfare of the NASA Deep Impact mission, which sent a spacecraft to collide with a comet. She couldn’t be reached for comment.
American universities have also trained Chinese researchers who later committed corporate espionage. Hanjuan Jin, a former software engineer at Motorola Inc., was found guilty in February in federal court of stealing the Schaumburg, Illinois-based company’s trade secrets and acquitted of charges she did so to benefit China’s military. She is scheduled for sentencing in May and has also filed a motion for a new trial.
Jin joined the company, now known as Motorola Solutions Inc. (MOT) (MOT), after earning a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. While at Motorola, she received a second master’s, this time in computer science, from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. IIT’s own research wasn’t compromised, institute spokesman Evan Venie said in an e-mail. A Notre Dame spokesman declined to comment.
Study Abroad Targets
More Americans are heading overseas for schooling, becoming potential targets for intelligence services, Figliuzzi said. More than 270,000 Americans studied abroad for credit in 2009- 2010, up 4 percent from the year before. President Barack Obama has announced an initiative to send 100,000 American students to China, and China has committed 10,000 scholarships for them.
As a junior at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, Glenn Duffie Shriver studied at East China Normal University in Shanghai. After graduation, he fell in with Chinese agents, who paid him more than $70,000. At their request, he returned to the U.S. and applied for jobs in the State Department and the CIA. He was sentenced to four years in prison in January 2011 after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide national-defense information to intelligence officers of the People’s Republic of China.