American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies Detected by FBI
Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon contacted the Central Intelligence Agency in late 2009 with an urgent question.
The school’s campus in Dubai needed a bailout and an unlikely savior had stepped forward: a Dubai-based company that offered to provide money and students.
Simon was tempted. She also worried that the company, which had investors from Iran and wanted to recruit students from there, might be a front for the Iranian government, she said. If so, an agreement could violate federal trade sanctions and invite enemy spies.
The CIA couldn’t confirm that the company wasn’t an arm of Iran’s government. Simon rejected the offer and shut down undergraduate programs in Dubai, at a loss of $3.7 million.
Hearkening back to Cold War anxieties, growing signs of spying on U.S. universities are alarming national security officials. As schools become more global in their locations and student populations, their culture of openness and international collaboration makes them increasingly vulnerable to theft of research conducted for the government and industry.
“We have intelligence and cases indicating that U.S. universities are indeed a target of foreign intelligence services,” Frank Figliuzzi, Federal Bureau of Investigation assistant director for counterintelligence, said in a February interview in the bureau’s Washington headquarters.
While overshadowed by espionage against corporations, efforts by foreign countries to penetrate universities have increased in the past five years, Figliuzzi said. The FBI and academia, which have often been at loggerheads, are working together to combat the threat, he said.
Attempts by countries in East Asia, including China, to obtain classified or proprietary information by “academic solicitation,” such as requests to review academic papers or study with professors, jumped eightfold in 2010 from a year earlier, according to a 2011 U.S. Defense Department report. Such approaches from the Middle East doubled, it said.
“Placing academics at U.S. research institutions under the guise of legitimate research offers access to developing U.S. technologies and cutting-edge research” in such areas as information systems, lasers, aeronautics and underwater robots, the report said.