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The FBI’s decades-long fight against industrial espionage hasn’t really worked

In the global economy, companies that steal trade secrets rarely face the consequences
Ms Tech | Getty

In the summer of 2011, Mark Betten drove north from Des Moines through the heart of Iowa farm country. It was a blistering hot Thursday just before the Fourth of July, the sort of day when no one wants to be in a car on the interstate. His trip to Johnston, a Des Moines suburb, was not intended to be particularly momentous. But what Betten learned there would end up consuming his life for the next few years.

He soon arrived at the headquarters of the seed company DuPont Pioneer, which occupies a low-slung building plastered with gigantic images of corn. Inside, Betten met with corporate security officers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was shifting its focus to economic espionage cases involving China. A 14-year veteran of the bureau with a close-cropped haircut and a gravelly voice, Betten was at Pioneer for what the FBI calls a routine liaison visit—a chance to exchange ideas and trawl for tips.

A dizzying array of technologies were now portrayed as critical to national security: wind turbines, paint whiteners, corn seed. The bureau worked closely with companies to identify the secrets targeted by Chinese competitors, and the relationship with DuPont, Pioneer’s parent company, was particularly cozy. DuPont was already a giant corporation: it would make a profit of over $4 billion in 2011, on revenue of nearly 10 times as much. By then, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) had already brought at least four federal trade cases on behalf of DuPont subsidiaries and affiliates on trade-secret theft. In the years that followed, that focus would only intensify. 

To catch Mo stealing agricultural trade secrets, the FBI pulled out tools it might use against drug cartels.

At the meeting, Betten explained the bureau’s efforts to combat economic espionage and tackle cybersecurity threats. A Pioneer security officer mentioned that a few months earlier, a contract farmer in a remote part of Iowa had found a Chinese national crouched on his knees in a field where the company grew genetically modified inbred seed. Another man waited nearby in a parked car. When the farmer asked what they were doing, the kneeling man stammered out an excuse; then he bolted for the car and jumped in the passenger seat as the car sped away. Pioneer security later used the license plate to trace the rental car to a man with a Florida driver’s license. His name was Hailong Mo.

Back at the FBI field office, Betten soon learned of two other suspicious incidents involving Hailong Mo and other seed companies operating in Iowa—including Monsanto, another agricultural giant, which would earn over $2 billion in profits that year. Agricultural technology is among the sectors designated for strategic development in China, and the US Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which advises the president on intelligence matters related to national security, had identified it as a frequent target of industrial spies. Betten ordered surveillance on Mo.

It turned out that Mo, who also goes by the first name Robert, worked for DBN, an agricultural company based in Beijing. DBN competed with Pioneer and Monsanto in the Chinese market. The Chinese government didn’t yet allow companies to sell genetically modified corn of the sort that had been growing in the Iowa field, but most experts expected the policy to change, and DBN, it seemed, was trying to prepare. Over the coming years, Betten followed closely as Mo and his colleagues at DBN executed an elaborate, if occasionally comical, plot to steal seeds from Monsanto and Pioneer. They posed as farmers, shipped boxes of seed using FedEx, and even attempted to smuggle the seed back to China in Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn bags. 

But the FBI’s reaction was equally outsized. Betten came to oversee a vast dragnet involving dozens of agents across the United States. To catch Mo stealing the trade secrets of the two agricultural giants, the FBI pulled out the tools that might be used against drug cartels or organized crime: car chases, airport busts, and aerial surveillance. The difference was that the target was a Chinese-born scientist with two PhDs—a new sort of criminal, and one that the US would increasingly take aim at over the years to come. 

The Justice Department is waging war on Chinese industrial espionage. In 2018, the department launched the China Initiative, an effort to crack down on intellectual-property theft and other crimes. Overseen by FBI and DOJ officials, as well as a group of federal prosecutors, it takes a “whole of government” approach that involves coordinating ideas across multiple agencies. Though ostensibly about upholding the law, the China Initiative has also become one of the US’s principal tools in its brewing technological standoff with China. And although it is partly the creation of Trump administration hawks, the groundwork was laid years ago, under the Obama-era Justice Department. 

The FBI now has over 2,000 active investigations involving China, spanning all 56 field offices. “We’re talking about everything from Fortune 100 companies to Silicon Valley startups, from government and academia to high tech and even agriculture,” FBI director Christopher Wray said at a conference at a Washington, DC, think tank in February. Even the pandemic has not slowed the effort. At a virtual event hosted by another think tank in July, Wray said that the FBI opens a new counterintelligence investigation involving China every 10 hours. Unlike those of bureau targets like election interference or far-right domestic terrorism, China-related investigations have full support from the highest levels of the Justice Department. 

In recent months, federal prosecutors have charged, in absentia, four members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with hacking into the servers of the credit-­rating agency Equifax and stealing data on millions of Americans. They have also unveiled charges of trade-secret theft against Huawei, the telecommunications giant whose ambitions to dominate the emerging 5G mobile telephony industry are seen by some as a threat to US national security interests. And they have charged US-based scientists at academic labs with lying about grants from Chinese institutions. (Former Harvard University chemistry chair Charles Lieber is the most prominent researcher to have been indicted.)

But critics question whether the DOJ’s China push achieves its goals of deterring crime and protecting innovation in America. In some cases, the drive to go after technology threats has resulted in hasty prosecutions, with charges later dropped or downgraded. “Everything looks like a nail when you’ve got a hammer,” says Margaret Lewis, an expert on China and Taiwan at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey. “DOJ is sweeping together everything from PLA hackers to misreporting on grants into one big China threat.” 

The US focus on industrial espionage didn’t begin with China. It goes back to the end of the Cold War, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union left a vacuum in the intelligence agencies. As agents left in droves, intelligence leaders sought out a new purpose. Industrial espionage was a natural fit. The increasing reach of the internet made technologies much easier to steal.

At the time, most US companies dealt with trade-secret theft through civil lawsuits, with one company suing another—and assuming the attendant legal costs. No international treaty or agreement addressed industrial espionage. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Economic Espionage Act into law, making trade-secret theft a federal crime and marking attacks on American business as a national security threat. The act’s stiffest penalties against individuals—fines of up to $5 million and up to 15 years in prison—are reserved for thefts that can be connected to a foreign government. At the time that meant France and Israel. Thefts by Chinese companies were not yet a significant concern. 

Federal prosecutors brought only a handful of cases in those early years, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, industrial espionage took a back seat to counterterrorism on the FBI’s list of priorities. Only when investigations picked up again in the late 2000s did the focus shift to China. The country’s ambitious plans to build up strategic technology industries were provoking alarm in Washington. As the two countries moved into a more adversarial relationship, the determination to focus on trade-secret theft only increased. 

In 2009, the FBI created a dedicated Economic Espionage Unit. In the years that followed, the bureau spearheaded an information blitz—holding seminars for companies and universities and printing brochures with titles like “Agricultural Economic Espionage: A Growing Threat.” At moments, the FBI has even staged international sting operations to defend US companies’ technology. In 2012, for example, an informant lured two Chinese entrepreneurs to the United States. The entrepreneurs had targeted the trade secrets of Pittsburgh Corning, which makes glass-block insulation. In a fictionalized film that the FBI produced about the operation, The Company Man, a gong sounds when the Chinese villains enter the frame. Later, the hero’s wife intones, “Just say no to the Chinese!” 

Such clunky messaging continues today. Though FBI officials have repeatedly said their investigations are not predicated on ethnicity, they have distributed pamphlets warning that “foreign adversaries” might try to entice US-based scholars through “appeals to ethnicity or nationality.” That could be counterproductive, argues Lewis. “You risk alienating people,” she says, adding that ethnic Chinese scientists who have not done anything wrong might conclude, “I’m not actually welcome here, so I will go back.”

China-related investigations are costly: they require translators and analysts and often stretch over years. By one estimate, over 70 agents worked on Mo’s case. But it’s not clear that they have a strong deterrent effect. Take the decision to charge Chinese army officers in absentia for hacking into Equifax’s servers. “If China is doing a cost-benefit calculus, and the cost-benefit calculus is ‘We can steal 145 million records and it means that four of our people can’t travel outside China,’ that’s a pretty good trade-off for China,” says Jack Goldsmith, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the George W. Bush administration.

Economic espionage cases are intended to protect American innovators from unfair foreign competition. But in prosecuting them, the US government has defended the interests of corporate giants whose practices are often themselves disturbingly anticompetitive. Farmers looking to buy seed could once choose from among dozens of small seed companies. That number has dwindled year by year, as DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto have bought up their competitors. Often the new owners have kept the small seed companies’ names, so that many farmers do not even realize that their preferred brand has been acquired. 

Indeed, at the time that Betten opened an investigation into Mo, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division was spearheading a separate inquiry into Monsanto for anticompetitive practices. Midway through the corn theft investigation, the DOJ abandoned the probe for reasons that are still unclear. It dropped several other agricultural investigations around the same time. 

Since then, seed companies have grown even larger. In 2016, the German conglomerate Bayer made a bid to acquire Monsanto; it concluded the purchase in 2018. In 2017, DuPont Pioneer merged with Dow Chemical, forming a conglomerate with about $90 billion in annual revenue. It subsequently spun out the agrichemical division as Corteva. Together with Syngenta and BASF, two other agricultural giants, Bayer and Corteva now dominate seed corn sales in the US and indeed in much of the world.

All of this means “higher prices and less innovation for farmers and consumers,” says Austin Frerick, an antitrust researcher at the Yale School of Management who ran for Congress in Iowa in 2018 on a platform that included opposing Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto. (He dropped out at the primary stage, citing challenges raising money.) “The price of corn seed has more than doubled in the past decade, and I promise you that seed didn’t get twice as good,” he says. “And as study after study in the economic literature demonstrates, innovation declines as industries get consolidated, because they lose the incentive to compete.”

On December 11, 2013, agents streamed into Mo’s house in Florida at the crack of dawn, arrested him, and led him out to a government car. It had taken years of work by dozens of agents in five states to build a case against him. In 2016, after two years of pretrial proceedings, Mo pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal trade secrets. Later that year, as Betten watched from a bench in a Des Moines courtroom, Mo was sentenced to three years in prison. 

But the government did not manage to apprehend five other people indicted in the case—Mo’s colleagues at DBN, who today remain on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. DBN, meanwhile, suffered no real consequences. Its stock took a dip after Mo’s arrest but later recovered. By the time the case had played out, Bayer had completed its acquisition of Monsanto. The FBI and Justice Department had worked hard to protect the company’s intellectual property in the name of safeguarding American innovation. But now that company was no longer even American.

This story was adapted in part from The Scientist and the Spy, published by Riverhead Books.

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