The spy agencies’ focus on China could lure Chinese Americans into a trap

WASHINGTON – As US intelligence agencies ramp up their efforts against China, senior officials admit they may also be collecting more calls and emails from Chinese Americans, raising new concerns about espionage affecting civil liberties.

A new report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence makes several recommendations, including expanding training on unconscious bias and reiterating internally that federal law prohibits targeting someone solely because of their ethnicity.

US intelligence agencies are under constant pressure to better understand China’s decision-making in the following areas nuclear weapons,geopolitics and the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic — and have responded with new centers and programs centered on Beijing. While there is bipartisan support for a tougher US crackdown on China, civil rights groups and advocates are concerned about the mixed impact of increased surveillance on people of Chinese descent.


For example, people speaking to relatives or contacts in China might be more likely to have their communications cut off, though intelligence agencies can’t quantify how often, in part due to civil rights concerns.

There is a long history of discrimination against civic groups by the US government in the name of national security. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II, black leaders were spied on during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and mosques were monitored after the September 11 attacks. Chinese Americans have faced discrimination since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to specifically prohibit immigration from a specific ethnic community.

Aryani Ong, co-founder of the advocacy group Asian American Federal Employees for Non-Discrimination, noted that sometimes people of Asian descent “are not fully trusted as loyal Americans.” She said the report, released May 31, was useful for discussions of what she described as a conflation of civil rights and national defense.


Ong and other advocates pointed to those of the Justice Department “China Initiative”, created to target Beijing’s corporate espionage and hacking operations. The DOJ dropped the program’s name after it was linked to stalled prosecutions of Asian-American professors on US college campuses.

“Often we hear responses that we cannot weaken our national security, as if protecting the constitutional rights of Asian Americans is counter to our defenses,” said Ong, who is Indonesian and Chinese-American.

But in trying to produce demographic data on the effects of surveillance, intelligence agencies say there is a paradox: investigating the backgrounds of US citizens whose data is being collected requires more intrusion into those people’s lives.

“To try to find out this type of information would require additional collection that would be totally unauthorized as it is not intended for foreign intelligence purposes for which the intelligence agencies are given their powers,” Ben Huebner, chief civil liberties officer Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in an interview.


But, Huebner added, “I think the fact that we can’t get those kinds of metrics analytically doesn’t mean we have to drop the ball that way.”

One potential disparity highlighted in the report is what is known as “side collection”.

When surveilling a foreign target, intelligence agencies may obtain the target’s communications with an uninvestigated US citizen. The agencies also collect phone calls or emails from US citizens when they are looking for foreign communications.

The National Security Agency has wide-ranging powers to intercept domestic and foreign communications, as revealed in part by Documents leaked by Edward Snowden. NSA rules require two people to sign off on the surveillance of each new foreign target. The NSA obfuscates the identities of US citizens in accordance with federal law and intelligence guidelines, and turns over potential domestic leads to the FBI.


The FBI can access Parts of the NSA collection without a search warrant. Civil rights activists have long argued that searches for what is known as Section 702 disproportionately target minorities.

The ODNI report notes that Chinese Americans “may pose an increased risk of such accidental collection,” as can non-Chinese Americans who have business or personal ties to China. The report recommends a review of artificial intelligence programs to ensure they “avoid perpetuating historical prejudice and discrimination.” It also suggests that authorities throughout the intelligence community expand unconscious bias training for individuals who handle information from random collections.

ODNI also examines delays in issuing security clearances and whether people of Chinese or Asian descent face lengthy or more invasive background checks. Although there is no publicly available data on permits, some applicants from minority communities have questioned whether they are subject to additional screening based on their race or ethnicity. According to the report, US intelligence estimates that “neither race nor ethnicity is the primary criterion used by PRC intelligence agencies when recruiting intelligence assets.”


Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement he welcomed the recommendations to “raise awareness of existing nondiscrimination prohibitions and improve transparency around the security clearance process.”

But Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is the committee’s vice chair, said the call for new training on unconscious bias and cultural literacy is a distraction.

“The Chinese Communist Party likes nothing more than us being distracted by divisive internal politics,” Rubio said in a statement.

The ODNI report highlights FBI training on race and ethnicity as a “best practice” in the intelligence community. In a statement, the FBI said there was “no place for bias and prejudice in our communities” and that law enforcement “must work to eliminate these flawed beliefs in our agencies to protect those we swore to protect.” best to serve. The FBI said its agents are trained to “obey the Constitution” and “treat everyone with dignity, empathy and respect.”


A senior NSA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters, said the agency currently requires unconscious bias training for managers and hiring officers, but not for all employees. The NSA trains intelligence analysts on rules prohibiting the gathering of intelligence to suppress dissent or discriminate against people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, and reviews ODNI’s recommendations.

The CIA late last year issued new instructions to officials discouraging the use of the word “Chinese” to describe the Chinese government. The guide suggests referring to the guide as “China,” “the People’s Republic of China,” or “PRC,” or “Beijing,” while “Chinese” is used to refer to the people, language, or culture.

“It is important to clarify that our concern is with the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China, the PRC – not the people of China, let alone fellow Americans of Chinese or Asian descent,” CIA Director William Burns said recently Lecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s a grave mistake to conflate the two.”

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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/15/spy-agencies-focus-on-china-could-snare-chinese-americans/ The spy agencies’ focus on China could lure Chinese Americans into a trap

Sarah Y. Kim

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