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WASHINGTON — Michael Orlando, a career FBI agent who has been tracking Chinese spies and agents for much of his career, has no doubts about what the most significant strategic threat is to the U.S. in the years ahead.
“The bottom line is, intelligence services and our adversaries are going to do what they do regardless of who’s in office,” said Orlando during an interview with Yahoo News last month. “From my view, the Chinese Communist Party will be the long-term threat for us this century and beyond,” he continued. “They are going to be the economic and national security challenge of this time.”
On Wednesday, with the resignation of his boss, William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Orlando effectively became the top counterintelligence official in the country. President Biden will need to nominate a new director to be confirmed by the Senate, but Orlando will perform those duties until he does. Both Orlando and Evanina have served under a number of presidents, and Orlando says the threat is the same, regardless of the administration.
Orlando’s career has involved more than chasing Chinese spies. He led the team that investigated Russian student and gun activist Maria Butina, launched the FBI’s Iran threat task force and analyzed Iranian threats to the U.S. after President Donald Trump ordered a lethal drone strike against Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military official, and led the bureau’s response when a Saudi gunman killed three U.S. sailors in Pensacola, Fla., last winter.
In November, Orlando took on a new role as the deputy head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a small division within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The center has assumed new relevance as concerns escalate over foreign spies infiltrating digital networks, academia and corporate suites.
While he got the job during Trump’s presidency, Orlando’s concerns about China echo those of the Biden administration. During a confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, testified that Biden sees China as a global competitor, but she condemned its leaders’ aggressive intellectual property theft, espionage and human rights abuses.
Orlando’s career has shaped his views on China. When he graduated from the FBI Academy in 2003, many of his colleagues were focused on the war on terror and the then recent invasion of Iraq. But around the same time, the bureau also decided to install counterintelligence squads in every FBI field office across the country, 56 of them at that time. Orlando, originally from New York and possessing an undergraduate degree in business, was sent to Pittsburgh.
While Pittsburgh in the early 2000s might not have seemed like a hotbed for Chinese spies, Orlando said he learned a lot about how the Chinese government was targeting advanced technology at universities like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. “There was a recognition that the Chinese government was looking to loosely acquire technology, as they are doing today,” he said.
The FBI believed China was deploying “nontraditional collectors,” or students and academics, to go after that information — rather than traditional spies working out of the embassies. “A lot of our work was really trying to turn over the stones and figure out how is this happening with not a lot of lead information to do it,” Orlando recalled.
He began traveling to China during a stint at FBI headquarters in Washington, an experience he said gave him “an opportunity to see firsthand how the Chinese intelligence service operates, and the authoritarian environment that it is.”
Orlando recalled catching strangers coming out of his hotel room and catching sight of microphones installed in every taxi “for his safety.” Those brazen actions marked the Chinese services as different from the FBI in his mind, which operates “under the Constitution,” Orlando said.
Since that time, the Chinese government has taken more severe measures, ejecting Western journalists and imprisoning more than a million Uighurs in Xinjiang.
While many have posited over the years that China’s approach to intelligence gathering is amateurish, Orlando was able to see its professional services up close. He applied those lessons when he arrived in Hawaii, where he led the investigation into Pentagon contractor Benjamin Bishop, who was later arrested for passing secrets to a woman he was dating.
While the FBI has long tracked the potential threat posed by Chinese espionage, Orlando said that “it was eclipsed by counterterrorism,” at least in the public eye, after 9/11. In recent years that has changed, however.
“Over time the threats have gotten wider and wider,” he said, “particularly on the technology side of it.”
Orlando joins a growing chorus of voices on both sides of the political aisle who point to China as a major national security threat, particularly in terms of technology and cybersecurity.
However, the national security bureaucracy’s focus on China has gone in and out of vogue over the years, and Biden and his national security officials will have to draw clear lines on what behavior is deemed damaging to national security and where the U.S. might partner with Beijing.
While senior national security officials have quoted economic losses in the billions as a result of Chinese theft, there’s little solid accounting of how officials arrived at those numbers, nor a clear understanding of how China spying on vaccine research, for example, constitutes a specific, imminent threat to Americans.
Meanwhile, China won’t be the only threat Biden is facing.
At the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, officials are focused on ferreting out foreign threats ranging from corporate espionage to digital and supply-chain threats, highlighted by the recent SolarWinds breach. Hackers — believed to be Russian — infiltrated SolarWinds, a popular IT software company, allowing them to penetrate a large number of private companies and U.S. government agencies.
While Orlando declined to comment on the ongoing SolarWinds investigation, deferring to the FBI, he said the breach and the subsequent investigation “will be very instructive to industry and government about where we go moving forward.”
While cybersecurity experts and politicians have disagreed about how to respond to the breach, and Biden has promised a strong response, Orlando advocates for better defense.
“We’ve got to figure out from this, how do we help people better protect themselves?” he said. That work should likely start with companies appointing a single person to be in charge of both information security and counterintelligence, he said.
“Everyone is looking for the magic answer. ‘Just tell me what the threat is, and I can fix it,’” Orlando recalled executives telling him. “Well, that’s the challenge. I don’t think we expect companies now to just dismiss all their supply chains and manufacture everything. That is not realistic.”
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