Newt Gingrich: Foreign spies are threatening US colleges -- we must stop them

The United States is home to the world’s highest-ranking colleges and universities. Indeed, our higher education system is one of our greatest assets. Yet we do too little to defend it.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 20 million students planned to attend U.S. colleges and universities in 2017. And the National Science Foundation reported that more than 800,000 international students were enrolled in institutions of higher education in the U.S.

Most of these international students, faculty members and researchers are here to capitalize on America’s educational opportunities. However, some are here to exploit the openness of our higher education system.

According to an advisory warning released by the FBI in 2011, foreign intelligence services target American universities to recruit students and faculty members to be agents of espionage and attempt to steal technical information and products. The FBI also reported that certain foreign actors illicitly exploit the student visa program and use universities as hubs to spread false information and political propaganda.

For example, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that China uses “nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see …  in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country.”

Wray added that China is “exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it.”

In March, nine Iranians were charged by the Justice Department after computer systems at 144 American universities were targeted in a cybertheft conspiracy.

Additionally, in 2014 the FBI issued an advisory stating that “the Cuban intelligence services are known to actively target the U.S. academic world for the purposes of recruiting agents, in order to both obtain useful information and conduct influence activities.”

These are only a few examples. Many other countries are looking to infiltrate and take advantage of the United States, so more must be done domestically to counteract this rising threat – while still maintaining the integrity of America’s higher education institutions.

One path forward is the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018 (SHEET), which he introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the Senate on May 22. If passed, the SHEET Act will give the director of the FBI the authority to formally designate a foreign actor as a “foreign intelligence threat to higher education.”

In order to receive such a designation, a foreign actor must have exploited the resources of an institution to engage in illicit activities such as espionage, fraud, theft of trade secrets, or interception of communications.

The SHEET Act would help by defining and identifying threats to American institutions of higher education, while still ensuring the protection of civil liberties of those suspected or accused.

Following the model contained in the Foreign Terrorist Organization statute, the SHEET Act also outlines a specific process whereby the designee can appeal the designation to court for a timely review.

Lastly, to ensure full transparency, the SHEET Act issues stricter reporting requirements for institutions of higher education in disclosing gifts from and contracts with entities that have been designated as foreign intelligence threats.

Congress must pass the SHEET Act to help ensure that American institutions of higher education are no longer infiltrated and exploited by foreign intelligence threats. Doing so will allow such institutions to continue to be worldwide leaders for discovering, challenging, and growing new students, faculty, researchers and ideas.