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What spying looks like today, according to the head of U.S. counterintelligence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The business of spying has changed for the digital age, but the spy business is only getting busier. Mike Casey is the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, and he sat down with NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, who sends us this report.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Before Mike Casey took over as the top U.S. counterintelligence official about seven months ago, he was the staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, so he was already well aware of the foreign spies, hackers and general bad actors trying to steal America's secrets. What's changed in his new job, though, is it's now his responsibility to keep those secrets safe.

MIKE CASEY: Fortunately for me - probably unfortunately for everybody else - counterintelligence, it turns out, is a growth business. More players are getting into it with more tools, going after more targets.

LUCAS: The usual foreign adversaries, he says, lead the list of concerns - China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. But other actors are increasingly getting into the game as well. That includes private-sector folks and cybercriminals.

CASEY: It's not just the Russians stealing secrets from the State Department anymore. It's everybody trying to steal all sorts of intellectual property, going after critical infrastructure. Just - the list goes on and on.

LUCAS: For all the changes, though, one foreign adversary still stands out, he says, for the ambition and scale of its espionage efforts - the People's Republic of China. Casey says Beijing has studied 20th-century American history and has come to the conclusion that the U.S. achieved greatness in part by helping create the world system that emerged from the ashes of World War II and the rules that govern it.

CASEY: And they have a view of national greatness that essentially says, if we can supplant the United States and key technology, both military and nonmilitary, and help establish sort of the international regulatory scheme for all that, then we will become the preeminent player in the international arena.

LUCAS: And that, he says, has influenced how China's intelligence service operates and the kind of targets it goes after in the United States.

CASEY: It's not so much - you know, no guy in a black hat breaking into the plant and stealing the tank armor out the back. It's much more of a hacking operation or hiring a scientist.

LUCAS: He points to a recent Justice Department case charging a former Google engineer with stealing the building blocks of the company's AI technology. The defendant, a Chinese national, was allegedly secretly working for two China-based tech companies at the same time that he was pilfering files from Google. That case is just the latest in what American officials say is a relentless campaign by China to try to steal American trade secrets, cutting-edge research and technology, as well as intellectual property in order to, as Casey said, leapfrog the U.S. as the world's top power.

U.S. lawmakers and officials, including Casey, have spent a lot of time in recent years meeting with American businesses and universities with the goal of informing them about what officials say the Chinese government is up to. Casey says that conversation has changed over the past five years.

CASEY: The question then you got was, really? How bad is it? I'm not sure I believe you. The question now is, what do I do? And that's a fundamental change.

LUCAS: Russia, of course, is another major counterintelligence concern, but Casey says the Kremlin doesn't target U.S. economic secrets the way China does.

CASEY: Certainly not to the same extent. I mean, they're still much more in their classic model of government secrets, military secrets.

LUCAS: While China and Russia are two of the top concerns for Casey, a recent Justice Department case demonstrated that smaller nations can't be overlooked, either. A former U.S. ambassador, Victor Manuel Rocha, was arrested and charged late last year with spying for Cuba. He has since agreed to plead guilty. The fact that a one-time ambassador was spying is bad enough, but Rocha did so undetected for some 40 years. So how big of a counterintelligence failure was that?

CASEY: Obviously not a small one, but we don't actually know how big it was yet until we go through and do the damage assessment. The IC will take a hard look at whatever was compromised and what kind of damage it did. But certainly, somewhere, we dropped the ball.

LUCAS: Rocha's spying predates Casey's time in the job. Still, it's a reminder of a point Casey makes about the spying business - never assume that you know everything and that you've got it all in hand. We're counterintelligence, he says. Paranoia is kind of what we do.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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