FBI Director: China Is Our Most Severe Intelligence Threat

Full Speech of Christopher A. Wray, Director of Federal Bureau of Investigation at the Council on Foreign Relations

I remember vividly standing in the FBI’s 9/11 command center with then-Director Mueller and a slew of others in a jam-packed room in the afternoon of the attacks. I remember in the period that followed meeting with families of the victims of those attacks and absorbing their shock and their heartbreak face to face. And though none of us could have foreseen where we’d be now, today in 2019, we all knew that the world had shifted around us. And now when I look forward it strikes me that we face yet another paradigm shift in the way we view the world.

The nature of the threats we face is evolving. Criminal and terrorist threats are morphing beyond traditional actors and tactics. We still have to worry about things like an al-Qaida cell plotting a large-scale attack, but we also now have to worry increasingly about homegrown violent extremists radicalizing in the shadows. These folks aren’t targeting the obvious—you know, the airport, the power plant; they’re targeting schools, sidewalks, landmarks, concerts, shopping malls with anything they can get their hands on, and sometimes things they can get their hands on pretty easily: knives, guns, primitive IEDs, cars. These are people moving from radicalization to attack in weeks or even days, not years. And they’re doing it online and in encrypted messaging platforms, not in some camp or cave.

On the cyber front, we’re seeing hack after hack and breach after breach, and we’re seeing more and more of what we call a blended threat where cybercrime and espionage merge together in all kinds of new ways. We still confront traditional espionage threats—you know, dead drops, covers, things like that—but economic espionage dominates our counterintelligence program today. More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are our nation’s assets—our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.

China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China. At the FBI we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our fifty-six field offices, and they span just about every industry or sector.

The kind of activity I’m talking about goes way beyond fair market competition. It’s illegal, it’s a threat to our economic security, and by extension it’s a threat to our national security. But it’s even more fundamental than that. This is behavior that violates the rule of law. It violates principles of fairness and integrity. It violates our rules-based world order that’s existed since the end of World War II. Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense. And to be clear, the United States—our country is by no means their only target.

They’re strategic in their approach. They actually have a formal plan set out in five-year increments to achieve dominance in critical areas. And to get there they’re using an expanding set of nontraditional methods, both lawful and unlawful, so weaving together things like foreign investment and corporate acquisitions, together with cyber intrusions and supply chain threats. The Chinese government is taking the long view. That’s probably an understatement. They’ve made the long view an art form. They’re calculating. They’re focused. They’re patient and persistent.

Overlaying all these threats is our ever-expanding use of technology: next-generation telecommunications networks like 5G, the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, cryptocurrencies, unmanned aerial system, deep fakes, all sorts of stuff that wasn’t particularly focused on during my time in the private sector but now back in government I see blinking red right in front of me and right in front of all of us. And we grow more vulnerable in many ways every day.

Taken together, these, I think, could be called generational threats because they’re going to shape our nation’s future. They’ll shape the world around us. They’re going to determine where we stand and what we look like ten years from now, twenty years from now, fifty years from now.

Our folks at the FBI are working their tails off every day to stop and find criminals, terrorists, and nation-state adversaries. We’re using a broad set of techniques, from our traditional law enforcement authorities to our intelligence capabilities. We’ve got taskforces all over the country with hundreds of partners from local, state, and federal agencies. We’ve got taskforces now targeting everything from terrorism to violent crime to cybercrime to crimes against kids, crime in Indian Country, you name it. We’ve got legal attaché offices all over the world now, stationed around to participate in joint investigations and information sharing. We’ve got rapid-response capabilities. We can deploy at a moment’s notice pretty much anywhere in the world for almost any kind of crime or national security crisis. And on the nation-state adversary front, together with our partners, we’ve got a whole host of tools we can and will use, from criminal charges and civil injunctions to economic sanctions, entity listings, visa revocations.

But even with all of that, we can’t tackle all these threats on our own. We’ve got to figure out more and more ways to work together, particularly with all of you in the private sector. We need to focus even more on a whole-of-society approach because in many ways we confront whole-of-society threats. It is very clear to me that the next few years will be very much defined by what kind of progress we can make with private-public partnerships.

One of the things that I’ve found most pleasantly surprising since coming back to government is the state and enthusiasm of partnerships. I’ve spent most of the past twenty months since becoming FBI director visiting all fifty-six of our field offices, and in each office I’ve been meeting with all of our employees to get a better handle on the work they’re doing in the trenches, but I’ve also been meeting in one state after another with our partners: law enforcement, the communities we serve, academia, the private sector. And while I hear about the same threats and concerns everywhere I go, I also hear about how much more effectively we’re working with our partners across the board with whole new levels of teamwork. And in my view, that’s exactly the kind of thing we need to be building on every day.

In our country the vast majority of our critical infrastructure and intellectual property is, of course, in the hands of the private sector. You own it. You run it. You’re on the frontlines. So you know the risks, you know the weak spots, and you’re much more likely in many ways to see the emerging threats coming down the road.

Nation-state actors are also targeting academia, including professors, research scientists, and graduate students. They seek our cutting-edge research, our advanced technology, and our world-class equipment and expertise.

And that’s why it’s so important for these lines of communication to be open. We’ve got to share as much information as we can with you as quickly as we can through as many channels as we can. We’ve also got to create mechanisms for you to share information with us so that we have a better understanding of what you’re seeing, what you’re worried about. We’ve got to keep building trusted relationships with all of you so that you know with confidence that we’re here to help.

So I hope we can keep this forward momentum going. I really do believe it’s the only way we can maintain and strengthen our firm footing as the world continues to shift around us. So look forward to continuing the discussion with Richard and with all of you. Thanks for having me.