For decades, the United States has provided foreign students with world-class opportunities in higher education. In some rare occasions, however, our hospitality is abused, as some students return home to put their skills to work for unfriendly foreign governments. A senior official at the Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI), speaking on background last week to The New York Times, confirmed that the Chinese government recruits a handful of students in the U.S. to gather information in disciplines like nuclear physics, in order to strengthen China’s weapons arsenal.
Such egregious offenses against our hospitality pose a threat to our national security. Combined with its nuclear capabilities, China has expressed hostility towards democracy and human rights. While the FBI should not harass Chinese students indiscriminately, it must be vigorous in its efforts to prosecute and, if necessary, deport any students whom it reasonably suspects of espionage.
Regrettably, Americans must come to grips with the reality of a global climate where not all nuclear superpowers are friendly to our interests, and where the proliferation of nuclear knowledge is a threat. In these conditions that are vaguely reminiscent of the Cold War, we must ensure that we not only protect our own secrets but also have superior information on developments abroad. The FBI has risen supremely to this task in its new efforts aimed at recruiting Chinese students as potential informants about the development of China’s nuclear arsenal. The information these students can provide might prove essential in preventing nuclear proliferation and keeping all Americans safe from global threats. A second official, also speaking on background, told The Times that these recruiting efforts come in the wake of “a more focused, more directed and more prioritized collection effort” by the Chinese government to grab American technology. It is our role as Americans confronted with such a dangerous reality to praise our government in these efforts.
But the FBI should not restrict its recruiting efforts to Chinese students in the nuclear sciences. The possibility of proliferation makes even those countries without a current nuclear arsenal potential threats, and for this reason, the FBI should step up monitoring and recruiting of students from countries that have demonstrated hostility towards America. We cannot allow cultural sensitivity concerns to prevent us from keeping a close watch on students from countries where terrorists find safe harbor or where angry mobs have burned effigies of our presidents in the streets.
The FBI must also expand recruiting to students in disciplines other than nuclear science. Many countries hostile to American interests—Iraq, for example—have also developed comprehensive chemical and biological arsenals, and students in the life sciences or in fields like biochemistry may be able to give our government useful information about the development of these arsenals in their home countries.
Additionally, fears of FBI harassment must not detract from this important mission. FBI recruiting can take place without harassment. And the vast majority of potential recruits are graduate students, old enough and responsible enough to make their own choices when confronted by the FBI.
Hopefully, expanded recruiting efforts will generate fruitful relationships between the FBI and informants who return to their home countries. As worldwide reconnaissance becomes a national security priority, we must recognize that foreign students in the U.S.—enjoying the education provided here—may also be able to help the American government ensure national security.