For years, countries including Russia and China have used their citizens who study in the U.S. as an intelligence-gathering resource.
Maria Butina, the gun-toting Russian graduate student who pleaded guilty in late 2018 to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent, creates a media frenzy every time she opens her mouth. Lost in the noise so far, however, is the fact that Butina may be one of many. For years, countries including Russia and China have regarded their citizens who study in the United States as an intelligence-gathering resource.
One thing the public should know about Butina is that she was not a “spy” in the traditional sense, but rather what the intelligence community would call an access agent. (Perhaps this is what she meant when she told The New Republic, in a piece published on Monday, “If I’m a spy, I’m the worst spy you could imagine.”) Her job, if the allegations are true, was to use her wits to gain access to organizations and individuals of particular interest to Moscow and to provide information to the real spies who might leverage that knowledge to promote Russia’s agenda. Another thing to know about her is that, whether by training or accident, she was spectacularly successful. Her handlers could not have imagined that she would be able to establish a working relationship with the National Rifle Association, pose for pictures with prominent politicians, and even ask foreign-policy questions of Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate.
I don’t mean to encourage some xenophobic reaction; I certainly don’t believe the nation should shun foreign students. On the contrary, the presence of these young people from all around the world makes America stronger. These students are important for our economy and the diversity of our academic communities.
That said, we must adopt a more realistic understanding of the counterintelligence implications of having so many foreign students on our soil. In 2017, an estimated 1.1 million international students were in the United States. China was by far the most common country of origin, with 33 percent of that number. Saudi Arabia has more than 50,000 students in the United States, and Russia slightly more than 5,500.
Access agents in academia are not a trivial problem, and they are not rare, even if most people never hear about them.
It was Butina’s misfortune that her orbit coincided with that of the Trump investigation. Had it not, then all the other work she did, including allegedly connecting Russian officials with NRA executives, would likely have gone undetected.
Many of our politicians, business executives, scientists, and particularly academics are simply naive about the subtle workings of foreign intelligence services. They are shocked by Butina’s story, which sounds, to them, like something out of a spy novel. But the fact is that a number of foreign students and visiting professors have been exploiting our ingenuousness for decades.
As we open these international students’ eyes to all that the United States has to offer, we need to open ours as well. Some of our visitors are not here simply to be informed, but also to influence us in ways many Americans have not imagined.