Maria Butina, the gun-toting Russian graduate student who pleaded guilty in late 2018 to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent, creates a media frenzy every time she opens her mouth. Lost in the noise so far, however, is the fact that Butina may be one of many. For years, countries including Russia and China have regarded their citizens who study in the United States as an intelligence-gathering resource.
One thing the public should know about Butina is that she was not a “spy” in the traditional sense, but rather what the intelligence community would call an access agent. (Perhaps this is what she meant when she told The New Republic, in a piece published on Monday, “If I’m a spy, I’m the worst spy you could imagine.”) Her job, if the allegations are true, was to use her wits to gain access to organizations and individuals of particular interest to Moscow and to provide information to the real spies who might leverage that knowledge to promote Russia’s agenda. Another thing to know about her is that, whether by training or accident, she was spectacularly successful. Her handlers could not have imagined that she would be able to establish a working relationship with the National Rifle Association, pose for pictures with prominent politicians, and even ask foreign-policy questions of Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate.
But as sensational as Butina’s story really is, the fact that she entered the country on a student visa is not at all surprising.
In the days immediately after 9/11, when I was the deputy associate director of Central Intelligence for Homeland Security, it came to our attention that the United States had precious little information on foreign students. We were hard-pressed to tell whether those granted student visas showed up for classes, whether they switched majors from music to nuclear physics, or what information they might be sending home along with their graduation photos.
Although the government is now much better at knowing the whereabouts of these students, there is no systematic effort to monitor what intelligence-related information, if any, they ship back home. But there is reason to fear that some number of them assist not only their government’s intelligence services but also, especially in the case of China, multinational corporations actively engaged in industrial espionage.
I don’t mean to encourage some xenophobic reaction; I certainly don’t believe the nation should shun foreign students. On the contrary, the presence of these young people from all around the world makes America stronger. These students are important for our economy and the diversity of our academic communities.
That said, we must adopt a more realistic understanding of the counterintelligence implications of having so many foreign students on our soil. In 2017, an estimated 1.1 million international students were in the United States. China was by far the most common country of origin, with 33 percent of that number. Saudi Arabia has more than 50,000 students in the United States, and Russia slightly more than 5,500.
In my nearly three decades of service in the CIA—including, at one point, as the deputy chief of the East Asia division in the Directorate of Operations—I came to know that Chinese security officials meet with many of their students before they go abroad to study, and in certain cases debrief them on return. While the Russians may not be quite as meticulous at weaponizing their young scholars, it is clear that a number of these students are amateur talent scouts for the motherland’s intelligence services. I learned not only that foreign students from traditionally hostile countries studying in the United States spot and assess potential intelligence targets, but also that they are given laundry lists of research material and intellectual property that their handlers would like them to funnel back home. In addition, the student visitors are asked to keep an eye on their fellow citizens in the United States, reporting those who appear to have “gone native.”
When I was with the CIA, a Russian graduate student reported to Moscow intelligence that one of his professors had behaved inappropriately on a trip with students. I learned of the story because the professor informed us that he was being extorted.
Access agents in academia are not a trivial problem, and they are not rare, even if most people never hear about them.
It was Butina’s misfortune that her orbit coincided with that of the Trump investigation. Had it not, then all the other work she did, including allegedly connecting Russian officials with NRA executives, would likely have gone undetected.
Many of our politicians, business executives, scientists, and particularly academics are simply naive about the subtle workings of foreign intelligence services. They are shocked by Butina’s story, which sounds, to them, like something out of a spy novel. But the fact is that a number of foreign students and visiting professors have been exploiting our ingenuousness for decades.
As we open these international students’ eyes to all that the United States has to offer, we need to open ours as well. Some of our visitors are not here simply to be informed, but also to influence us in ways many Americans have not imagined.
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