WASHINGTON (AP) — As U.S. intelligence agencies ramp up their efforts against China, senior officials acknowledge they may also end up collecting more phone calls and emails from Chinese Americans, raising new concerns about espionage affecting civil liberties.
A new report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence makes several recommendations, including expanding unconscious bias training and reiterating internally that federal law prohibits targeting someone solely because of their ethnicity.
US intelligence agencies are under constant pressure to better understand China’s decision-making on issues such as nuclear weapons, geopolitics and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic – and have responded with new centers and programs focused on Beijing. Although there is bipartisan support for a tougher US approach to China, civil rights groups and advocates are concerned about the disparate effect of increased surveillance on people of Chinese descent.
As an example, people who speak to relatives or contacts in China might be more likely to have their communications scanned, although intelligence agencies cannot quantify the frequency, in part due to freedoms concerns. civil.
There is a long history of discrimination by the US government against groups of citizens in the name of national security. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II, black leaders were spied on during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and mosques were surveilled after the 9/11 attacks. september. Chinese Americans have faced discrimination since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to explicitly ban immigration from a specific ethnic community.
Aryani Ong, co-founder of the Asian American Federal Employees Non-Discrimination Advocacy Group, noted that people of Asian descent are sometimes “not entirely trustworthy as loyal Americans.” She said the report, released May 31, would be useful for conversations about what she described as the confusion of civil rights and national defense.
Ong and other advocates pointed to the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” created to target economic espionage and hacking operations by Beijing. The DOJ dropped the program’s name after it became associated with wavering lawsuits against Asian American professors on US college campuses.
“Often we hear responses that we cannot weaken our national security, as if protecting the constitutional rights of Asian Americans (is) against our defense,” said Ong, who is Indonesian and Chinese. American.
But in trying to produce demographic data on the impact of surveillance, intelligence agencies say there is a paradox: Examining the backgrounds of US citizens whose data is collected requires more intrusion into the lives of those people. people.
“Trying to uncover this type of information would require further collection which would absolutely not be authorized because it is not for foreign intelligence purposes for which the intelligence community obtains its authorities,” Ben Huebner, the civil liberties official for National Intelligence Director Avril Haines said in an interview.
But, Huebner added, “I think the fact that we can’t analytically access these kinds of metrics doesn’t mean we can kind of drop the ball on this.”
One potential disparity highlighted by the report is what is known as ‘incidental collection’.
By monitoring a foreign target, intelligence agencies can obtain the target’s communications with a US citizen who is not under investigation. The agencies also collect phone calls or emails from US citizens when seeking foreign communications.
The National Security Agency has sweeping powers to monitor domestic and foreign communications, as disclosed in part by documents leaked by Edward Snowden. According to NSA rules, two people must approve the surveillance of any new foreign target. The NSA masks the identities of US citizens under federal law and intelligence guidelines and forwards potential national leads to the FBI.
The FBI can access part of the NSA collection without a warrant. Civil rights advocates have long argued that searches under so-called Section 702 disproportionately target minority communities.
The ODNI report notes that Chinese Americans “may be at increased risk of such accidental collection,” as can non-Chinese Americans who have business or personal ties to China. The report recommends a review of artificial intelligence programs to ensure they “avoid perpetuating historical biases and discrimination.” It also suggests that agencies in the intelligence community extend unconscious bias training to people who process information from incidental collection.
The ODNI is also studying delays in granting security clearances and whether people of Chinese or Asian descent face longer or more invasive background investigations. Although there is no publicly available data on clearances, some applicants from minority communities questioned whether they were subject to additional scrutiny because of their race or ethnicity. According to the report, US intelligence assesses that “neither race nor ethnicity is the primary criteria used by PRC intelligence services in their recruitment of intelligence assets.”
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he welcomes recommendations “to increase awareness of existing non-discrimination prohibitions and improve transparency around the security clearance process”.
But Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who serves as the committee’s vice chairman, said demanding new training in unconscious bias and cultural competency was a distraction.
“The Chinese Communist Party loves nothing more than when we are distracted by divisive domestic politics,” Rubio said in a statement.
The ODNI report points to FBI training on race and ethnicity as “best practice” in the intelligence community. In a statement, the FBI said there was “no place for bias and prejudice in our communities” and that law enforcement “must work to eliminate these erroneous beliefs in our communities.” agencies to better serve those we are sworn to protect. The FBI said its agents are trained in “obedience to the Constitution” and to “treat everyone with dignity, empathy and respect.”
A senior NSA official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters, said the agency currently requires unconscious bias training for managers and hiring managers, but not for all the employees. The NSA trains intelligence analysts on rules that prohibit the collection of intelligence to suppress dissent or disadvantage people based on their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, and reviews recommendations from the NSA. ‘ODNI.
Late last year, the CIA issued new instructions to officers discouraging the use of the word “Chinese” to describe the Chinese government. The guidelines suggest referring to leaders as “China”, “People’s Republic of China” or “PRC” or “Beijing”, while using “Chinese” to refer to people, language or culture.
“It is important to be clear that our concern is with the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China, the PRC – not the Chinese people, let alone our fellow Chinese or Asian Americans.” , CIA Director William Burns said in a recent speech at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It is a grave mistake to confuse the two.”