Ending DoJ’s China Initiative was ‘misguided and dangerous,’ 8 senators say

A group of Republican senators sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday criticizing the Department of Justice’s decision last month to shutter its controversial China Initiative.

The three-page note called on the DoJ to “recognize and reprioritize” the threat posed by the Chinese government to US national security, emphasizing the need to combat the theft of trade secrets concerning artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum computing, robotics, 6G, and other emerging technologies.

Late last month, Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division Matthew Olsen announced that the DoJ was ending the Trump-era initiative, saying that it created a “harmful perception” among academics and researchers that the department was unfairly targeting ethnic Chinese professionals.

“To be clear, we are no longer going to have a China Initiative going forward,” said Olsen. “Having listened to the concerns and most importantly having understood the nature of the threat we face today, I think a better, more appropriate and effective strategy is to look at all the threats we face from nation-state actors.”

The new “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats” takes a broader look at four key adversaries — China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran — and the various national security threats they pose to the US, including cyber capabilities.

The letter from the group of senators, which represents the most high-profile rebuke of the DoJ’s announcement to date, called the decision “misguided and dangerous.”

“Despite this critical moment and the high stakes, DoJ chose to disband its China Initiative in favor of a vague ‘Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats’ that appears to equate the unique and extensive threats from the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] with those of other nation-state threats,” the senators wrote. “What concrete policies and actions will emerge from this strategy, and their adequacy to the challenge at hand, remain to be seen. We urge DOJ to formally recognize and reprioritize the threat presented by the CCP to U.S. national security, and ask that you reconsider your decision to disband the China Initiative.”

"Ineffective against combatting security threats"

The initiative, started in 2018, kickstarted several high-profile legal actions against academics who had ties to Chinese institutions and government programs. Harvard professor Charles Lieber, for example, was found guilty of lying to government authorities last December about his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program. Lieber, a former chair of the University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was also convicted of failing to report income received from Wuhan University of Technology while conducting taxpayer-funded research for the US Department of Defense.

At the same time, academics and rights groups criticized the program for racial, ethnic, and national origin profiling, arguing that many of the charges brought by the initiative were for minor or unrelated offenses. “The DoJ’s strategy is ineffective against combatting security threats, but also extremely harmful to the Asian American community,” dozens of groups wrote last January in a letter to then president-elect Joe Biden.

“If DoJ mishandled particular cases, pursued cases without sufficient evidence, or otherwise acted in a manner that raised legitimate concerns about racial bias or other improprieties, those problems should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The wholesale abandonment of a national security initiative because of unproven allegations of racial profiling should not happen,” the group of Republican senators wrote.

The letter was signed by Marco Rubio (R-FL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rick Scott (R-FL), James Lankford (R-OK), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Ron Johnson (R-WI). The text of the letter can be read below:
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Adam Janofsky

Adam Janofsky

is the founding editor-in-chief of The Record from Recorded Future News. He previously was the cybersecurity and privacy reporter for Protocol, and prior to that covered cybersecurity, AI, and other emerging technology for The Wall Street Journal.