Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Daniel Golden exposes how academia has become a major target of foreign and domestic espionageand why that is troubling news for our nation's security and democratic values.
Grounded in extensive research and reporting, Spy Schools reveals that globalizationthe influx of foreign students and professors and the outflow of Americans for study, teaching, and conferences abroadhas transformed U.S. higher education into a front line for international spying. In labs, classrooms, and auditoriums, intelligence services from countries like China, Russia, and Cuba seek insights into U.S. policy, recruits for clandestine operations, and access to sensitive military and civilian research. The FBI and CIA reciprocate, tapping international students and faculty as informants. Universities ignore or even condone this interference, despite the tension between their professed global values and the nationalistic culture of espionage.
Taking advantage of patriotic fervor and fear in the wake of 9/11, the CIA and other security agencies have infiltrated almost every aspect of academic culture and enlist professors, graduate students, and even undergraduates to moonlight as spies. Golden uncovers shocking campus activityfrom the CIA placing agents undercover in Harvard Kennedy School classes and staging academic conferences to persuade Iranian nuclear scientists to defect, to a Chinese graduate student at Duke University stealing research for an invisibility cloak, and a tiny liberal arts college in Marietta, Ohio, exchanging faculty with China’s most notorious spy schoolto show how relentlessly and ruthlessly both U.S. and foreign intelligence services are penetrating the ivory tower.
Golden, the acclaimed author of The Price of Admission, unmasks this secret culture of espionage and its consequences at home and abroad.
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About the Author
Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his Wall Street Journal series on admissions preferences at elite colleges, which became the basis for his bestselling book, The Price of Admission. He edited a series about how U.S. companies dodge taxes by moving their headquarters overseas, which won Bloomberg News’s first and only Pulitzer Prize in 2015. In 2011, he was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his Bloomberg News series about for-profit colleges exploiting veterans, low-income students, and the homeless. He is currently a senior editor at ProPublica.
Read an Excerpt
CLOAK OF INVISIBILITY
Brandishing a light saber, and sporting a dark cloak and hood that concealed his eyes but not his grin, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi pranced about the stage of Window of the World Caesar's Palace in Shenzhen, China, on the evening of January 30, 2016. So did Jedi warriors, imperial stormtroopers, and other Star Wars characters. Pulsating spotlights and jets of smoke alternately illuminated and clouded the spectacle as a cheering audience of seven hundred waved yellow, green, and purple sabers.
Titled "Battle of Future — A New Dawn," the Star Wars parody highlighted an extravaganza that also featured live music, sensual dances, people's faces (poked through a screen) atop puppet bodies, and a tribute to China's military. It marked the sixth anniversary of Kuang-Chi Institute of Advanced Technology and Kuang-Chi Science Ltd., which aim to conceive and commercialize breakthroughs in the fastgrowing field of metamaterials. Ruopeng Liu, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, is the founder and head of these ventures; the other Jedis, their executives; the performers and audience, their workers. Several members of the audience won prizes epitomizing the fearless, innovative spirit that Liu preaches: trips to the North Pole, the South Pole, and Near Space.
Still in his costume but now sans saber, Liu clutched an enormous bouquet of flowers in his left hand and a microphone in his right, and glorified his accomplishments in song. "No matter how thrilling it is outside, I behave with perfect composure," he crooned in Chinese. "You can't say how hard the trip is, it's fortunate we kept a cool head." Then he segued into the chorus from the Beatles' "Hey Jude."
Chubby-cheeked and endearingly boyish at the age of thirty-two, Liu had a lot to celebrate. His majority stake in Kuang-Chi Science, which is traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, made him a billionaire with a business empire extending to the United States, Norway, Canada, and New Zealand. Chinese media dubbed him the "Elon Musk of China," equating him as a visionary with the iconic founder of electric car maker Tesla. By the end of 2015, his fledgling institute had sought an astounding total of 3,289 patents, and received 1,783. China's government showered him with honors and responsibilities for technology policy, and President Xi Jinping, as well as many prominent ministers and party officials, toured Liu's enterprises in Shenzhen.
Yet Liu's wealth and fame are a mask, like his costume at the anniversary gala, or the invisibility cloak that he helped design as a Duke graduate student in electrical engineering, under renowned professor David R. Smith. They hide an unsettling reality that has never been made public: he owes much of his success to what one might call a higher education form of economic espionage. Liu exploited an unwary professor, lax collaboration guidelines, and Duke's open, global culture by funneling Pentagon-funded research to China. He arranged for Chinese researchers to visit Smith's lab and reproduce its equipment, and passed them data and ideas developed by unwitting colleagues at Duke. He secretly started a Chinese website based on research at Duke, and deceived Smith into committing to work part-time in China. His activities compromised the United States' edge in an emerging technology that could someday conceal a fighter jet, tank, or drone, affecting the outcome of a war or covert operation. Once Liu returned to China, a grateful government invested millions in his start-up ventures.
Looking back, some of Liu's former colleagues in the Duke lab feel that he violated their trust. "When you toil away in academia, only about ten people know it's your idea," one member of the lab, Jonah Gollub, told me. "Ideas were flowing from here to China. In retrospect, people feel they weren't given the full picture."
The Liu case illustrates how vulnerable academic research is to foreign raiders, and how little universities do to protect it. Eager to attract international students and open branches abroad, universities are reluctant to offend China and other countries by cracking down on research theft. Yet, by looking the other way, they're betraying the government agencies, and ultimately the American taxpayers, funding the research. We pay taxes for our military to defend us, only to have universities compromise that security by pursuing global prominence without acknowledging or addressing the collateral damage.
Although Liu has never been charged with any crime, the FBI looked into his activities and briefed university presidents and law enforcement officials about them. At an October 2012 closed-door session of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board at FBI headquarters, according to an agenda obtained through a public records request, Smith recounted how, "without his knowledge, a Chinese national targeted his lab and ... created a mirror institute in China. The episode cost Duke significantly in licensing, patents and royalties and kept Smith from being the first to publish ground-breaking research." An FBI video interview with Smith about the episode, shown to an invitation-only audience in September 2015, was titled simply "The Theft of a Great Idea."
Liu "was definitely filled with intent," and his actions "could have tremendous economic impact in the future," Smith wrote me in July 2015. "I think if people understood how something like this happens, and how those with potentially ill intent can take advantage of the natural chaos that occurs in US academic environments, they might become more aware and avoid things like this in the future."
Academic research offers a valuable, vulnerable, and low-risk target for foreign espionage. Despite pursuing groundbreaking technologies for the Pentagon and the intelligence community, university laboratories are less protected than their corporate counterparts, reflecting a culture oriented toward collaboration and publication. Typically, university researchers aren't required to sign nondisclosure agreements, which run counter to the ethic of openness.
"There's a lot less control than in a company like Boeing," says John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Universities are ripe pickings for anybody who's interested in accessing intellectual property."
Ignorance about intellectual property safeguards, or even hostility toward them, is rife among science students and faculty. There is "zero instruction" on the topic outside law school, Villasenor told me. Significant proportions of UCLA engineering graduate students whom he surveyed couldn't define a patent (21 percent), copyright (32 percent), trademark (51 percent), or trade secret (68 percent). Never contemplating the possibility of espionage, American professors sometimes comply with requests from acquaintances or strangers overseas for research advice, manuscript reviews, or unpublished data. A civil engineering professor at Penn State once phoned Graham Spanier, then the university's president, to say that a foreigner had emailed him asking how to build an underground concrete structure that could withstand a megaton explosion.
"I was about to hit send, when it dawned on me, I'd better ask," the professor said. "I don't know this person." Spanier notified the FBI, which traced the request back through seven intermediary layers before losing the trail. The elaborately disguised source was never unmasked.
The casual university attitude belies the growing threat. Academic solicitation, or "the use of students, professors, scientists or researchers as collectors," tripled from 8 percent of all foreign efforts to obtain sensitive or classified information in fiscal 2010 to 24 percent in 2014, according to the Defense Security Service, a Defense Department agency that protects American technology.
American college graduates with a flair for engineering or computer science typically join high-technology companies, or start their own, rather than continue their educations. As a result, international students dominate graduate programs in those fields at U.S. universities, forming the backbone of their workforce for cutting-edge research. In 2012–13, foreign students earned 56.9 percent of doctorates conferred by U.S. universities in engineering and 52.5 percent of those in computer and information sciences. They comprise more than 70 percent of graduate students nationwide in Smith's specialty, electrical engineering.
"Foreign intelligence services, foreign corporations and foreign governments often target these students in an attempt to have them provide the results of the research they are working on or other proprietary and intellectual property that belongs to the United States government or to United States corporations that are funding the research," David W. Szady, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, wrote in a July 2014 newsletter. "Foreign militaries can develop state-of-the-art weapons systems by stealing research from colleges and universities that is sponsored by the United States Department of Defense."
American taxpayers fund a significant amount of academic research and development. The U.S. government spent $27.4 billion on it in 2014, up from $16.9 billion in 2000 and $9.1 billion in 1990. That includes $2.4 billion in 2014 from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies (not counting the CIA, which doesn't report expenditures), up from $1.7 billion in 2000 and $1.2 billion in 1990.
Some of this research is off-limits to foreign students. If it's classified, only people with security clearances can work on it, usually in secure, off-campus facilities. If it's export-controlled, the next level down on the secrecy scale, the university must obtain a license from the government for a foreign national to participate. Such licenses are typically denied for students from countries such as China and Iran.
The bulk of federally funded university research, though, is fundamental, and open to all students. Since it can also be published without restriction, one might wonder, why bother stealing it? The answer: to save time, and avoid mistakes. Access can provide insights beyond the results published in an academic journal. "It's great to know the solutions, but the process is arguably just as important," says historian Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "You can see the paths not taken, the failures and dead ends." With a mole in a U.S. university laboratory, researchers overseas can publish and patent an idea first, ahead of the true pioneers, and enjoy the consequent acclaim, funding, and surge in interest from top students and faculty.
A foreign government may be eager to scoop up a fundamental breakthrough before its applications become so important that it's labeled secret — and foreign students lose access to it. J. A. Koerner, the former head of counterintelligence in the FBI's Tampa office, has a term for such promising science: pre-classified. "Once it becomes integrated into a military system, it will be classified and harder to get at," he says.
The very openness of U.S. universities denies them recourse against foreigners who siphon American ideas abroad. Economic espionage laws require the owner of stolen trade secrets to have taken reasonable precautions to protect them, like Coca-Cola's famed vigilance in defense of its formula. Lacking nondisclosure and collaboration agreements to safeguard intellectual property, universities can't meet that standard.
Reflecting his prominence at Duke, Professor David Smith has two offices in different buildings that face each other across a well-manicured lawn. He runs both his own research group out of the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences, which has a stone façade and modern amenities like "smart bridges," as well as the department of electrical and computer engineering out of older, redbrick Hudson Hall.
When we talked in April 2016 in the Hudson Hall office, where a remodeling had left the walls and shelves bare, Smith displayed none of the self-importance that one might expect from a department chair and award-winning scientist often touted as a Nobel Prize candidate. Casually dressed, he came across as soft-spoken and unpretentious.
The case of Ruopeng Liu, his former student turned Chinese billionaire, had taught him how easily the relationship of trust that scientific collaborations depend on can be abused, he told me. "No one has any training in intellectual property," he said. "It's something we're all grappling with — where to draw the line."
Smith was born in 1964 in Okinawa, Japan, where his father served in the U.S. military. When he was a baby, his parents divorced, and he had no more contact with his father. His mother worked odd jobs, and they lived all over California: Riverside, San Diego, Carlsbad, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and finally Escondido, where he spent his last three years of high school.
He earned his bachelor's degree in 1988 and his doctorate in 1994, both from the University of California, San Diego. His hobby in graduate school was blackjack. He learned to count cards, a strategy that improves the player's chances by predicting the value of cards remaining in the deck. "I ended up organizing a group that played blackjack in Las Vegas for a while." Scammed by dealers using marked decks at a casino on an Indian reservation near San Diego, he sued to recover his losses. After five years of litigation, during which Smith "learned quite a bit about Indian gaming law," a California appeals court ruled against him.
Smith was a latecomer to academic stardom. At UCSD, he "was a fairly typical graduate student with no expectations on that level at all," said David Schurig, who overlapped with him there and later was a researcher in Smith's lab at Duke. "It's quite an impressive rise."
As a postdoctoral student at UCSD, Smith became involved with a biotech company his adviser was starting, and hardly published any research. He decided to leave academia for industry, but thought that a few publications first would help his career. As it happened, his articles helped launch the field of metamaterials — artificial materials with properties not found in nature — and "I was lucky enough to turn things around."
Around 1998, he began collaborating with Sir John Pendry, an English physicist and professor at Imperial College London, who theorized that metamaterials could warp the path of light as it moves through space. At a scientific meeting in San Antonio in 2005, Pendry suggested what he regarded as an "amusing" application. "I said, 'By the way, we can make something invisible,'" he later recalled. "I just gave a sketch and one slide with a formula on it and I sat down and I expect everybody to laugh. Straight faces."
Smith, who had joined Duke's faculty in 2004, missed the conference, but two members of his lab attended Pendry's speech. "Pretty soon the phone lines were hot, and David said, 'We've got to build this stuff,'" Pendry recalled.
"I and my group thought it would be a fun challenge and we realized right away we could do the experiment and the design," Smith told me. "I never expected that interest in this topic would be so huge."
Invisibility has always fascinated humankind. After killing Medusa, Perseus donned an invisibility helmet to elude the Gorgons. Long before Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, King Arthur and Tom Thumb wore invisibility cloaks, while Gyges, a shepherd featured in Plato's Republic, sported an invisibility ring to murder a king and seduce the queen.
Journalists crave invisibility for professional benefit; we long to be unnoticed observers, flies on the wall, albeit flies with notebooks, pens, cameras, and tape recorders. Similarly, the obvious advantages of invisibility in war and espionage have long intrigued strategists. The British Army employed a stage magician and a filmmaker as invisibility consultants in World War II. For a 2002 Wall Street Journal article about the CIA's resurgence at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I sat in on a meeting where the agency's chief scientist, John Phillips, suggested projects for college seniors. High on his list was bending light rays to keep a spy in the shadows.
"Make me invisible," the six-foot-three, 250-pound Phillips exhorted.
In June 2006, Pendry, Schurig, and Smith coauthored an article in the prestigious journal Science explaining how to make an invisibility cloak. The following October, in a report published online by Science, those scientists, together with other members of Smith's lab, unveiled the first successful cloak. Composed of thousands of copper circuits, it "can make light curve around an object, and then emerge just as if it had passed in a straight line," Smith later wrote. "Think of it like water flowing past a rock in a stream."
Excerpted from "Spy Schools"
Copyright © 2017 Daniel Golden.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The FBI Goes to College
Part 1: Foreign Espionage at American Universities
1: Cloak of Invisibility
2: The Chinese Are Coming
3: Spy Without a Country
4: Foreign Exchange
Part 2: Covert U.S. Operations in Higher Education
6: An Imperfect Spy
7: The CIA's Favorite University President
8: Bumps and Cutouts
9: Hidden in the Ivy
10: "I Am Keeping You out of Jail"
11: No-Spy Zone