(3TV/CBS 5) - Foreign governments are sending spy students to American universities, and U.S. intelligence agencies are trying to recruit them as double agents, according to court documents and experts interviewed by CBS 5 Investigates.
“Research universities are very well targeted,” said Ken Williams, a retired special agent with the FBI. “There’s a lot of things they could be looking for. They could be looking for intellectual property,” he said.
Research universities are targeted, according to Williams and other experts, because of the open and collaborative nature of their work. They also conduct cutting edge research, often for government agencies.
“Universities do an awful lot of military research and research that’s funded by the Pentagon and intelligence agencies,” said Daniel Golden, an investigative reporter and author, who wrote the book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.”
Golden says foreign government often pay for graduate students’ education here in the U.S. They sometimes demand something in return.
“They’re not necessarily official spies for their country or part of their country’s intelligence agency. They may be something more informal,” said Golden.
Earlier this fall, The FBI arrested Ji Chaoqun in Chicago and charged him with working for a high-level intelligence officer in China. Chaoqun arrived in the United States in 2013 to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
A Chinese billionaire named Liu Ruopeng is accused of stealing research from Duke University while studying there from 2006 to 2009. The research involved “invisibility” technology funded by the U.S. military.
Maria Butina, who is charged with working as an unregistered agent for the Russian government, spent two years at American University.
In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee that his agency was monitoring Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities. These are Chinese language and cultural centers funded by the Chinese government, and exist on university campuses across the country, including at Arizona State University.
Daniel Golden calls universities the new “front line for foreign espionage.”
But U.S. intelligence agencies also use universities as recruiting grounds.
“If I spot a student in a particular field of study that I think, you know he or she likes the United States and is very friendly toward the United States, but I know they’re not going to be staying in the United States, I may approach them and try to recruit them to become intelligence assets for me,” said Ken Williams. “Then I’ll pass them on to my brothers and sisters in the Central Intelligence Agency,” he said.
CBS 5 Investigates found no records that show foreign students at ASU or the University of Arizona had been arrested for spying. But over the course of the past year, CBS 5 spoke to multiple ASU foreign students and U.S. students with ties to foreign countries, who indicated that they had been approached by U.S. law enforcement to become spies, or had been given special treatment during internships by government agencies. None agreed to speak on camera.
“Now you can understand how difficult it is for us to do the very same thing,” said Williams.
Arizona State University sent CBS 5 Investigates a written statement saying:
“All students and employees at ASU are expected to follow U.S. laws and if found doing otherwise, the university would take the appropriate steps in keeping with the law.”