Counterintelligence Head Narrows Focus to Five Technologies Critical to U.S. Dominance

WASHINGTON—The U.S.’s top counterintelligence official said he is narrowing his team’s focus to safeguarding five key technologies, including semiconductors and biotechnology, seeing their protection from rivals as determining whether America remains the world’s leading superpower.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center’s acting director,

Michael Orlando,

said Thursday he is sharpening the center’s priorities in order to conduct an effective outreach campaign to educate businesses and academia about the expansive efforts by China and Russia to collect cutting-edge research.

The five technologies identified by Mr. Orlando include artificial intelligence, quantum computing and autonomous systems such as undersea drones and robots that can perform surgeries. The sectors are often depicted by scientists and researchers as future drivers of economic growth and military dominance.

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Michael Orlando, acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, says losing dominance in certain fields could lead to the U.S. being eclipsed.


Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Mr. Orlando, who took up the post in January after serving as deputy director, said at a media briefing that losing leadership in these fields could lead to the U.S. being eclipsed as the world superpower.

The narrower focus appears to mark an adjustment, rather than a departure, from a full-scale counterintelligence drive begun under the Trump administration to stop the theft and transfer of American technology, research and other proprietary information to China.

The initiative saw counterintelligence officers fan out to universities and businesses, briefing them on a broader set of fields Beijing has identified as areas to dominate, as well as the U.S.-China competition over next-generation wireless technology known as 5G. Civil liberties and academic groups criticized parts of that effort for creating an environment of suspicion that stigmatized Chinese and other Asians.

Mr. Orlando prefaced his remarks by clarifying that when he talks about China and Russia, he’s referring to the activities of their governments, not their people. He also said that he isn’t advocating across-the-board decoupling from the Chinese economy and that he recognizes the importance of attracting foreign talent, including students, to the U.S. to compete in these five areas.

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Semiconductors are among the five technologies that are considered key to maintaining an edge. A semiconductor facility in Malta, N.Y.


Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg News

He said it isn’t practical for the counterintelligence center to look at such a wide range of fields and that the threat of Chinese companies like Huawei Technologies Co. dominating 5G has already been highlighted.

As part of its new priorities, the counterintelligence center named

Edward You,

a career FBI agent and an expert on biological threats, to a newly created position to focus on emerging and disruptive technologies. Mr. You said Thursday that a goal is to raise awareness that China’s efforts to develop the world’s largest data set of genetic and other biological information pose a threat beyond individual privacy issues.

While Chinese companies such as

BGI Group

have continued harvesting global biological data by offering genetic-testing services, China’s government has effectively stopped granting access to its own peoples’ data, Mr. You said. “It’s a one-way street,” putting other countries at a disadvantage, he said.

A BGI spokesman accused the U.S. of spreading disinformation, and said the company protects all data in compliance with international standards and local regulations, and that the company isn’t linked to the Chinese government.

The new priorities of the counterintelligence center, which falls under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, are in line with reports issued last year by a House Armed Services Committee group and the House Intelligence Committee. Those reports urged the Defense Department to rethink national security, including by investing in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biotechnology, and said intelligence agencies needed to adapt to “a changing geopolitical and technological environment increasingly shaped by a rising China.”

Messrs. Orlando and You pointed to a long list of examples of licit and illicit attempts by China to bolster its capabilities in the five key technologies. Among those were Chinese company acquisitions of biologic facilities and chip companies around the world, as well as the theft of autonomous vehicle technology that they said led to the indictments of a handful of people.

The officials cited announcements this year by China’s

WuXi Biologics

that it had purchased a Bayer manufacturing plant in Germany and a


plant in China, and by a

WuXi AppTec

unit that it was building a plant in Delaware.

A representative for WuXi Biologics said it is building or acquiring the facilities in response to customer demand and that the projects have local government and community support. The representative said the company’s global biomanufacturing capacity is expected to account for less than 5% of global capacity by 2024.

A WuXi AppTec representative said it is building the Delaware facility to better serve customers and patients and that it will bring 500 jobs to the area.

The U.S. officials also cited what they consider to be problematic Russian and Chinese partnerships at U.S. universities and warned of the risks of participating in foreign government-sponsored recruitment programs. A slew of prosecutions in the past two years have involved U.S.-based researchers being recruited by Chinese government-backed plans that offer generous stipends.

The scrutiny has made U.S.-China collaboration in academia a lightning rod, with some scientists accused of lying about receiving Chinese government funding and allegations that visiting Chinese researchers concealed their affiliation with the Chinese military. Several of those prosecutions have fallen apart.

Messrs. Orlando and You said they aren’t advocating a ban on U.S.-China research collaboration but that they want people to be fully aware of the risks.

Huawei is losing its edge in the smartphone business as the Chinese tech giant copes with a global chip shortage as well as U.S. sanctions that cut the company off from 5G technology. WSJ reporter Dan Strumpf explains what’s led to Huawei’s current challenges. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Write to Kate O’Keeffe at [email protected]

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