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"Economic Espionage: A New National Security Threat?" SwatTalk

with Mara Hvistendahl '02, writer

Recorded on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020

 

Transcript

Speaker 1:

Webcast and the SWAT Talks off. So happy to have everybody. Our fellow Swarthmore Alumni with us. We're here. We have a fantastic, fantastic event tonight with Mara Hvistendahl who has written her third book and we're going to be talking mostly about that third book. And I want to let everyone know that we will be recording this session. So just so you know. That's the first thing. The second thing to know is that Mara and I have decided we're going to do this in a Q and A format with, I'll be asking questions and she'll be responding to them. And we want your questions too, so in the zoom app on the right side, you can click a button.

Speaker 1:

One way to look at it is on mine it says more and there are some dots and if you click on that, the chat box will open on the right, it should be on the right of your screen. And you can type a question. If you just want it to be a private one, it can be just to the panelists or it can be to everyone watching. And what I'll do is I'll try to integrate those questions into this. And when you do that, it would be great if you could give us your name and your class year because it helps us to know who you are and where you're from and so on. And so please do share that with us. So that said, what we're going to do is we'll start off now, and this is the book right here and Mara has it right behind her too.

Speaker 1:

It's called The Scientist and the Spy. And it is a fascinating, incredible book. It is an espionage. It's like a detective novel and I have to say Mara that if you were to try to pitch this to someone as a novel, they might say, it's too far fetched. I don't believe you. But I believe that this book ought to be made into a movie. It's so interesting and gripping. And maybe we'll get into some of that part. But where I wanted to start off with on this is I think your background as a writer, your experiences about where you grew up, where you've lived, where you've lived after Swarthmore also really played a role in this book. Maybe more so than other books for other authors. And I thought it'd be a great place to start if you could tell everybody about that.

Mara:

Sure. Well, thanks for having me. It's good to be here and good to speak with all of you virtually. I grew up in Minnesota and went to Swarthmore and studied comparative literature which meant Spanish and English lit. And then I did a Chinese minor. I had started studying Chinese in high school, but it wasn't really till Swarthmore that I learned much at all. And it's such a difficult language that I'm still learning. So I was also a Lang Scholar at Swarthmore which meant the emphasis on social action and I did do a service project in Mexico while I was there. And while I was doing that project, it was on the border. I lived on the Mexico side in Kenosha.

Mara:

And while I was there, I lived with a family in a squatter colony and just grew, got to be immensely interested in our lives. And that was when I discovered that I wanted to be a journalist. I ended up taking copious notes and also becoming very close with that family. So it was this really unexpected outcome. I went in thinking I would end up working for an NGO or do one thing and then by virtue of having that experience of doing the leg project I was able to do some good, I hope. And then also I found what my true passion was. And I did then go back to Swarthmore and work on the Phoenix. It was one of the editors there. And I've been very proud to see the Phoenix in the news lately breaking national stories. Sorry, I did not get to the after Swarthmore.

Speaker 1:

And there is after Swarthmore too. There is life after Swarthmore.

Mara:

Yes there is after Swarthmore. After Swarthmore, I went to Columbia for journalism school straight away and then left deciding I wanted to be a magazine writer and one of the first editors I had said to me, well, but if you speak some Chinese, you should just move to China and try to freelance from there. So I did that and it didn't have a lot of work at first. But that was actually a great opportunity to learn the language better. Get my bearings, get to know the culture and gradually I had more and more work. Eventually I became a correspondent for a science journal and that led after some other projects to this book.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. So all of that seems really important to me. Growing up in the Midwest plays a role in this book. I think being a writer for science plays a role in this book because there's some actually some heavy duty science in this and the life in China too. So, and then again, for people, this is the book, it's called The Scientist and the Spy. And this is probably the best book I've ever read about agricultural espionage. I'll admit though, it's probably the only book I've ever read about agricultural espionage, but it makes me want to do more. But so when we say it's about agricultural espionage for people who have not read the book and it just came out. So I think most people wouldn't have gotten to it. Maybe you can tell us, give us the overview description of what this is about.

Mara:

So in my job for science, my job was to cover mainly research from China. I also covered other parts of the Asia. That meant that I spent my days following researchers into the fields, going on archeological digs, writing about the space program. It was very fun and exciting, but I felt that it was often read and moved from the news that many other foreign correspondents were writing about. And then [inaudible 00:07:20] into my time there and my time with the journal, I read about the story of a man named [Mohalong 00:07:30] or Robert Moore as I could call him in the book, who was found near a Monsanto corn fields in Iowa. The story was in the New York times and it explained that his appearance in that field had set off this two year FBI investigation that culminated in him being arrested.

Mara:

And there's this issue of international focus for both countries. So I was immediately intrigued because that case had happened in the Midwest. There I was in China writing about Chinese science. And it also was soon followed by other cases. So there were then more and more cases of ethnic Chinese scientists often or people working for Chinese companies who were prosecuted. They charged with trade secrets theft. And as the FBI became more of a counter-intelligence organization, it expanded its focus to include trade secrets theft from China. And this is actually now one of the top counter-intelligence goals of the FBI is to combat trade secret stuff from China. So the story of Robert Moore was just very quirky and it was unlike cyber espionage cases for example, there was a lot of detail that I could follow, really literally started in a corn field.

Mara:

And then there were several years of him, criss-crossing the Midwest looking for years of corn. He was working for a Beijing agricultural company that was trying to reverse engineer this corn and on the other hand, because his lawyers had fought it tooth and nail in court, I had a lot of visibility into what the US government had done, into the lengths that the FBI went to capture him and investigate him and ultimately the resources that were spent on prosecuting him as well.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. So you talked about this being about corn, but a lot of us eat corn. They might have popcorn, talk to us about, what do you mean trade secrets around corn? How many trade secrets can there be? What is it about corn that lends itself to being something around international espionage?

Mara:

So, over the past few decades as there's been a shift toward trading trade secrets theft as a counterintelligence priority the US government has argued that economic security is national security. So, if you go back a few decades economic espionage wasn't even a crime. It first became a crime in the mid 1990s in the wake of the cold war. And then over the past decade as there've been all these prosecutions involving China, there have been cases that deal with these very basic technologies. So you have things like Boeing aircraft on the one hand, but also the whitener that's used in Oreo cookies, wind turbines and the corn case. So the cornfield that Robert Moore was found in was a contract field. So you had a local farmer who had contracted with Monsanto to grow their inbred corn seed lines to make hybrid corn. So each line of hybrid corn has two parents and the company-

Speaker 1:

I want to stop you right here because this is one of the things in here. In the book, you say, well, this special agent was somebody who didn't even know the difference between inbred and hybrid corn. Please go on, but tell us the difference between inbred corn and hybrid corn and why that matters here. I didn't know the difference either until I-

Mara:

Neither did I when I started writing this book. I feel that there may be biologists on the line who know a lot more about the topic than I do. But basically this is a field where the company was breeding corn but it had these two inbred parent lines decades ago. Plant breeders found that you could produce the most robust years of corn by controlling their lineages and having these two pure parents that you breed together to then make a hybrid. So this was also genetically modified corn like much of the corn that's grown in the United States. It was like next generation research and companies like Monsanto, which is now bear protect these lines so carefully that even the farmers that grow them in their fields don't know what seed lines they're being given. So it arrives in bags and they or not even told what they're growing.

Speaker 1:

Am I getting it right that the inbred would be the same lines essentially together and then hybrid would be taking two different lines. Is that right?

Mara:

So the company that Robert Moore worked for is called DVN. They had this scheme to try to get these seed lines from Monsanto and from other seed companies. And in order to do that, they had to get both parent lines of each seed line that they wanted to steal. And so they had targeted around a hundred seed lines. So that meant that they needed 200 parents. So this is an immense task. In the book, Robert Moore is a fairly sympathetic character in person. I wanted to tell a story that was complex and show the different people who have been caught up as pawns in this global rivalry between the US and China. And he was a scientist who had moved to the US to pursue his second PhD.

Mara:

So highly educated. He was actually in the field of thermodynamics. That had this classic academic story where after he graduated, he could not find a tenure track position. And so through nepotism, he gets a job with this Beijin company to secure agricultural products from the United States for the company. He doesn't know going into the job that he's going to be tasked with doing illegal things like literally digging seeds out of the ground. And that those tasks gradually are assigned to him as his work goes on.

Speaker 1:

And maybe you could talk a little bit about how they... So there was this gentleman who lived in Florida and he would fly up to the Midwest and he would go around corn fields sometimes with others. And in the middle of nowhere really and pick up some corn from the ground or so on. How did the FBI get wind and get this idea that these people were a problem and how did they get onto them?

Mara:

So that was always so interesting about the case is that in the process of investigating him, the FBI used car chasers, surveillance planes. You'd have these unmarked planes that are registered to fake company names and they would fly these planes over the Midwest to watch what Robert Moore was doing. They also took out of it or they used collected evidence using a FISA warrant which is intended to be used for an extreme national security threats. Often it's not and it's use has expanded over the past few years. But when I pulled out all the stops into this investigation. And the FBI works very closely with corporations in developing investigations and that's what happened in this case. So there is an agent in the Des Moines Bureau who's also a major figure in the book. And one day he drives out to DuPont Pioneer, which is a local seed company and the representative that he speaks with in corporate security at DuPont Pioneer tells him that they've had this incident, cornfields belonging to the company where two ethnic Chinese men were found.

Mara:

And the farmer working in the field thought it was suspicious, they reported it. And then later Mark Butten, the FBI agent, hears about this second incident and that's when it spirals into this big investigation. He ends up overseeing work in five or six states, he flies in multiple airport busts in the book. It just becomes this almost comical in terms of the scale but clear that there are men's resources devoted to the case. And what I found when I looked into it is that actually this case is not that unique. There have been incidents where the FBI staged an international sting operation in order to catch somebody for a trade secret stuff.

Speaker 1:

And one of the great scenes in this book that when this book is going to be made into a movie I know will be one of the dramatic scenes is, and I'll just going to pause before I say that. I'm just going to for people who are just joining, we're here I'm Jim Sailor from the class of 1990 at Swarthmore and we're here and talking with Mara Hvistendahl and all about her book, The Scientist and the Spy, which is an amazing book. But Mara, maybe you could tell us about this great scene where the men have collected seeds from a whole range of corn and they have gone and they're mailing them. They're actually sending them via FedEx I think back to China. And once they get back to China, there's very little the Americans will be able to do about it. And so at this point, they're literally being tailed. Their car is being tailed I think, and there are bugs and all kinds of things going on and the FBI has to figure out what to do because they've actually just gone to the FedEx office to send this and maybe you could tell that story for us.

Mara:

So, they went into the FedEx office to drop off the seed. There were pounds and pounds of it. After they walk out, the FBI walks in, intercepts the seed. So now they have this seed that was supposed to be shipped to Hong Kong and then presumably onto China. The FBI then thinks that they need to replace it with identical looking seed so that the Robert Moore and his colleagues will not become aware that they're being investigated and in order to do that they have to... the FedEx locations in Chicago, Mark Butten, the FBI agent is in Des Moines. So he drives about an hour away to the Pioneer headquarters with his lights and sirens on picks up the seed, drives back to the Des Moines airport.

Mara:

There was an FBI pilot waiting there to get the seed and jet it to Chicago so that it can then be switched out and sent on to Hong Kong. And this is a scene I actually got quite late after I'd finished my reporting, I sent a lot of the texts to various people I'd interviewed including at the FBI. I also had spent a long time talking with Robert Moore and meeting with him in prison, corresponding with him by email, but it was after I checked all these details with Mark Butten that he then told me this other story.

Speaker 1:

Incredible. And there's this scene of once they get it to Chicago, everyone has to pack it up very, very quickly because they are about to miss the flight out and they want to make sure it gets there. So let me go on to one more thing, the very interesting mythology around international espionage that is introduced in this book and it's the thousands of grains of sand or the beach analogy or metaphor that's used and it's raised up and I think it's pretty significant because one of the things that you just mentioned a few minutes ago was that one of the reasons these people were detected was because they seemed out of place because of their race. They seemed out of place in the corn field in the Midwest. And that caught some people's attention. There's this element that goes through it. And there's actually a theory around how different countries do their international espionage. And you introduced that concept in the book and I wondered if you could tell us about that.

Mara:

Yeah. Just to explain a little bit more. One of the things that got me interested in writing a book about this topic was not just the case itself that intrigued me. The details are very captivating, but there were over the same time period a number of other cases playing out. And shortly after I moved back to the US I did a story for science on the case of several Chinese American scientists who had been charged with trade secrets theft and then turned out to be completely innocent or they had done something much less severe than they were originally charged with.

Mara:

The most well known of these cases is Josh [Ensee 00:23:44] who was then the interim chair of the physics department at Temple University. So very close to Swarthmore. He's now still a physicist there. But he had this experience of waking up one morning and the FBI was on his doorstep. Suddenly his name was all over the news. He was charged with transferring secrets to China. And then it turned out that the charges were dropped just a few months later. So I was interested in telling the story of those cases and what had happened in these incidents of I think over reach. In order to do that, I need one very captivating case to anchor the book around and the Robert Moore case turned out to be the one that just provided the infrastructure to get at these other issues.

Mara:

So to go back to your question, one of these issues is how the FBI has traditionally looked at cases involving economic espionage from China or trade secrets theft. And many of you probably remember the Wen Ho Lee Case in the late 1990s, became a national issue. He was charged with 59 different charges of relating to alleged espionage of... It was believed that he'd stolen secrets connected to a nuclear warhead then it turned out that 58 of the 59 charges were dropped. The investigation had been botched and President Clinton went so far as to apologize to him. So around the time of the Wen Ho Lee Case, there had been this theory, percolating within the Bureau that was called the thousand grains of sand theory. And that held that if intelligence collection is aimed at determining a composition of sand on a beach that the United States and Russia would go in with spectrographic scanners and they would send reconnaissance teams in the middle of the night to collect small samples of sand.

Mara:

And then they'd use these James Bond like tactics, traditional espionage. Whereas China, this theory held would simply send 10000 people to the beach who would then each... They would all just sunbathe all day and then collect... They would bring their towels home at the end of the day and shake out their towels and that somehow China would collect information using all these people. When I first read about this theory, I was almost dumbstruck because first of all hearkens back to images of yellow peril to this idea of hordes overwhelming our borders, just on that level is offensive to many people. But it was also really hard for me to imagine after having reported on the Chinese government for so many years how the Chinese bureaucracy could easily assemble anything from dispersed information. It's a highly inefficient [crosstalk 00:27:37] -

Speaker 1:

It's not that organized.

Mara:

Yeah. So, it's just a theory that it says more about our assumptions than it actually does about China. But it is one of those theories that even today persists within some parts of the intelligence community. And there are intelligence analysts who started to push back on it, but it still felt like I needed to address it in the book because it plays such a significant role. As the Robert Moore case was playing out, there were commentators, journalists who were writing articles saying, this case shows that China will just send out its people to spy. And that imagery crops up again and again with some of these cases involving ethnic Chinese scientists.

Speaker 1:

And one of the reasons I wanted you to tell that story, Mara, was because for those of us who really valued our liberal arts education and the idea of critical thinking and not taking that. Whatever's presented to you as the answer is something that even if it sounds right or make some sense on some level to question it and to look at it from different angles and they said, well, I think this is a problematic view and as well, there are racial elements or national origin elements to it and so on and so forth. And so I just thought that was a great example of critical thinking and something we can all relate to. I want to go into that a little bit more, but we do have a question that I wanted to share from William Campbell, who's a class of 2012 and who thanks you for speaking tonight and writing the book and wanted to know what is your sense around the breakdown in how much the FBI is paying attention to these things around prosecuting other things versus preventing, so it's prosecuting versus preventing economic espionage.

Speaker 1:

If you have a sense of how much they're... If they are worried more about preventing versus prosecuting and then in general is the efforts to address this by the FBI, is that in the aggregate being effective or are they really just able to tackle a very small, a bit of the kind of espionage that's going on. Do you have a sense of that?

Mara:

So, there is this tension within companies between protecting their trade secrets on the one hand and then also admitting to when they're stolen. The last week, the justice department indicted hackers connected to the people's liberation army for hacking into Equifax. And that's a very good example of just I think odd use of prosecutorial tools. Because until then, Equifax had been under a lot of scrutiny in the news for not protecting people's data. And in that indictment, they're essentially arguing that our data, which was held by the company is a trade secret which is a very unusual argument in a lot of these cases because of yours working so closely with companies, the companies interest which is almost always in arguing that their information is a trade secret is accepted without question.

Mara:

To go your question on deterrence it's argued by Attorney General, William Barr very recently that these cases are deterrence and that they are deterring people from stealing trade secrets. I can speak most about the case that I looked at most over a number of years. In that case, Robert Moore went to prison for three years, and in some ways his life was ruined. He has a wife and kids in the United States but the company that he worked for is actually doing just fine. They may have the seed lines that they stole in production in China and it's not clear to me that these cases are doing much to stop the issue of trade secret theft.

Speaker 1:

Okay. That's very helpful and interesting. So one of the things about this book that I liked so much and you mentioned some of the things. That you talk about other cases. You talk about Wen Ho Lee you talk about the Temple professor, you talk about broader issues and then you come back, you go back and forth between those broader issues in this case. And I felt that the book really operated on two levels. On the one hand, it was this very riveting, exciting story about what was happening in this particular instance and these particular people, many of whom you felt real sympathy for in the process as you say, Robert was really... that was exactly the word. I don't know that you use that word in the book, but you used it here and on was the word that I came up with.

Speaker 1:

I worried about him. He got his physical ailment during the book and I started to worry if he's get all these things, you start to worry if he's going to be all right. So on the one hand, it's a story of this espionage and intrigue and by the way, I wasn't sure who the good guys and bad guys were going to be in the end.

Speaker 1:

It wasn't clear to me until the book went on. And on the other hand, you zoom out up into the big sphere of policy and big issues around [Sino 00:34:19] US relations. And you talk about the visit of a senior Chinese officials and the interaction between them and the Governor of Iowa, who then becomes the US ambassador. You talk about racial profiling and this new paradigm that you've referred to around intellectual property and as hard as this is to... When you try to sum up those big issues, what do you think are the lessons that we should be thinking about? How should we think about economic espionage and the role of the US government and international thing? How should we be thinking about that differently after having read the book and heard this riveting story?

Mara:

The one question that came into my mind over the course of reporting it, which was not there at the beginning. Initially when I went into it, I was just interested in why these cases were being brought now or what it meant for scientific cooperation. And by the end of it, I started to question whether spending all of these resources on prosecutions is ultimately used for protecting innovation in the United States and Monsanto is a very interesting victim company to have in the case because of a number of reasons.[inaudible 00:36:05] Monsanto evokes all these emotions and associations. But also by the end of my reporting, the company had been acquired by Bayer. So the US government had spent all these resources defending its intellectual property under the assumption that this was American IP and then it's essentially became a German company. Well, companies in China do have this allegiance to the Chinese government. We see that multinationals do we not have the same allegiance to the US government? So this argument that an attack on their IP is an attack on America breaks down at that level.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible 00:36:48] I was muted there. Sorry. So very interesting. These policy questions get very complicated when you're talking about these global companies and so on. And that go across, of course, state boundaries. So we have another question. Interesting question from Charles Goldberg, class of '72. And that is, does China have the right to set the conditions on which it will allow access to its markets, including the right to require the sharing of intellectual property by US companies? And to the extent that we deny China this right. Does it smack of colonialism in your view?

Mara:

That's a question that I'm not sure I would feel comfortable asking. It is an interesting question. It's become clear with US policy around Huawei for example, that we are increasingly alone. So for efforts you get allies like the UK, other European countries onboard with not installing Huawei technology are starting to fail and they're from the perspective of some other companies. The US mainly wants to prevent the rise of a major rival. And I don't believe it would be a great thing to have China be a great power just given where the country's at right now in terms of the million people who are in turn in [Siyoung 00:39:04] for example. I'm honestly fearful for both administrations, you have a mirroring of actions where you have these two men in power who would like to be in power for a very long time in both countries and worrying suppression of speech. I'm not saying that what's happening here is prevalent to what happens there. But that is a question that's raised by people outside the US and I think sometimes they have an interesting perspective as observers to these two countries that are battling it out for supremacy.

Speaker 1:

Great. I'm just going to do a reminder to the people who are watching and listening to this very interesting discussion that if you have a question, you can type it on the bottom right. We are talking with Mara Hvistendahl about her terrific book, The Scientists and the Spy. And we've been talking a lot about the big issues that this book raises in addition to the just great thriller story that it is. I'd like to go a little bit to ask you, we have about a little under 20 minutes left and I want to ask you about the craft of writing a little bit and some of the things that come up. The detail in the book is phenomenal and really you have a great eye for detail in there.

Speaker 1:

I wanted to ask you because I'm always curious about this. So you talked to a lot of the principal people in the book of course some people come off better, some people maybe don't come off as well. And one question is, was there anybody who talked to you, who you felt you were really glad they talked to you, but you had no idea why they were talking to you. It might've been better for them if they hadn't even done so in terms of they were revealing things to you that maybe didn't end up making them look so good.

Mara:

I'm biased, but I do think in general it is in people's interest with a long form project to speak to journalists. There have been instances, especially when I was working in China where I have encouraged, for example, people in rural areas, who are people who might be targeted to use pseudo names or where I can give them pseudo names myself. So I don't believe under at all circumstances that journalists are helpful. And I know there are a lot of situations where we can make things worse. Robert won't talk to me quite a lot. We corresponded for many months and he told me all about his childhood. He sent me the poems that he wrote in prison. He told me all about what it was like to be in prison. He actually became very good friends with another well known defendant in an economic espionage case and they would play ping pong and talk about Chinese history.

Mara:

It was just surreal seeing that I was able to paint. I do think that he came off more sympathetic because I was able to talk to him. One of the issues that I identified going into the project was that in a lot of the stories I'd read about these cases, the defendant is not given a voice and not able to tell their side of the story. And so I did want to do that. But I also spent a lot of time talking with the FBI and then also there is an American farmer character who's going caught in the middle in the book. And he would talk to me quite a bit too.

Speaker 1:

Great. So, let's go on. So you've had a very interesting career in writing books and not to pigeonhole the description of your books, but one of them is of course this agricultural espionage thriller that you've just written. You wrote a book about a murder in Shanghai, I think. And then a third book is on the very difficult issue and problematic issue of the sex ratio difference at birth. The gender preference that people in many places seem to have for boys over girls and this problem of the missing girls. And so when I look at all these three things, it's a big question about, is there something that ties them together for you? Is there a thread? What interests you when you're thinking about doing a story? Is there one hook or many hooks or, and this is perfectly fine too. Is there absolutely nothing to do with any of them? They don't have anything to do with each other I should say. And that's okay too. Tell us how you think about this.

Mara:

I tend to get interested in stories where I feel the press coverage that's been out there or the papers that are out there don't adequately explain the story. So, where you've read a bit about the story that I still don't understand what's going on. Maybe even done one of those short news articles myself and I still left with a lot of questions and that is what happened with my first book where many of the explanations that were given in the press for why there was this ever-growing sex ratio at birth in China but also at other countries, they just rang hollow for me they didn't fully answer. They didn't seem to have fit with what I saw the country was developing very quickly.

Mara:

And gender equality was improving in some ways, getting worse in other ways. And so that was the case with this book too where I had read a bit about these trade secrets prosecutions, and I still was left with a lot of questions and then also wanted to understand why had this becomes such a priority. We're, those of us who cover China, constantly hearing this is a national security threat. This is one of our top counter-intelligence targets right now. And so, yeah, I wanted to answer that question.

Speaker 1:

Great. Thank you. Mara, we have a couple of other questions from people who are participating. So Wilbert Greenhouse asked the question, as a journalist in the United States, what process do you follow to make sure the stories you come across are true and are not "fake news"?

Mara:

Well, I tend to just go investigate them myself to make sure that their-

Speaker 1:

You do the research.

Mara:

Yeah. There is a lot of misinformation out there and I learned that even... a lot of this book is based on court documents. But I then did identify all the places and all the names in the court documents and go talk to all those people myself. And so I did find even in court documents, there are mistakes made sometimes. So I tend to just still go out and check whenever possible.

Speaker 1:

Great. Okay. And then here's a tough one. Are you ready? So speaking generally, is it your impression that the government is stealing economic trade secrets from other nations companies. Do you get that sense.

Mara:

Interestingly in that when you go back to the 1990s when there was this discussion over making economic espionage a federal crime, one of the reasons for that, one of the impetus was that the cold war had ended you had this gap in priorities for the intelligence community. Our major threat was now gone and a lot of agents lacked a mission. For a lot of officers, I should say, lacked a mission at the same time and it'd become a lot easier to steal secrets because of the dawn of the internet. And there were people at the time, including former heads of the CIA, politicians. There was this whole camp who argued that the United States, should also go out and actively steal economic intelligence from other countries.

Mara:

And it was decided in the end that that was too far, that we would criminalize it before other countries did it. And then that in the years that followed, the US government went about carving out this almost moral stance that it is wrong. It's business as usual when our intelligence agencies steal political secrets and but it is a crime to steal from private companies. And these did come up in the Snowden documents. There are some who believe that there are incidents where the US has gone so far as to steal economic intelligence. That is something I didn't get into in the book. I do think in general that we don't have as much need to steal those secrets on behalf of our companies. But certainly US companies are actively stealing them themselves.

Speaker 1:

They're pretty good at doing that themselves.

Mara:

You still see a lot of cases fought in civil court all the time. There was a self driving car case involving Google, Waymo and Uber. There's a great New Yorker who wrote an article on that.

Speaker 1:

And I should have mentioned, by the way, that that was Stacy Wallet's question from the class of '65. We have another big policy question for you from Theresa Greenie and Theresa is interested in your thoughts as to who should be responsible for protecting trade secrets. Should it be the US government doing this or should it be the companies themselves that are... because as you've noted, there were tremendous resources that were applied to this case with bugs or wire taps and planes and different sets of cars and people following each other and videos and all kinds of things here. Who should be responsible for protecting the trade secrets? Should it be the companies or should it be the US government?

Mara:

With these cases before the Economic Espionage Act, the issues of trade secrets, theft company to company all their legal costs would be assumed by the companies. And [inaudible 00:51:27] there has been a lot of cases involving the theft of corn previously there was, going back to the 1980s, US seed companies would do something called flashlight breeding where they would go out into a field with a flashlight and they steal a competitor's seed. So in a way it's an old story. I am not sure that it's a great use of US government resources to invest all this money in defending these companies trade secrets. It is an issue that people have raised with the Ecofacts indictment. That indictment is mainly for show because we are not going to get the PLA hackers here on in a country where we can arrest them. But there were resources that went into even bringing that indictment. And that is a case where there was definitely an error made in the company leaving those secrets to be taken.

Speaker 1:

Right. And then in the same vein, we got a question and actually in advance of our talk tonight from Al Weller who had already borrowed the book, A Natural Selection from the library, your other book and is now here on this one. And the question is, do you think that in today's world, the phrase "national security threat" is a little bit of a double entendre. And what Al means is, is the eagerness to investigate a national security threat, but done badly with the effect on innocent people in the four methods and so on. Is that as much of a risk as the actual thing that they're trying to go after. So when you think about the balance of the prosecutorial zeal on the one hand and the value of what they're trying to protect, you see that it's a useful thing or that it's a very mixed thing to do this protection in this investigation by the FBI.

Mara:

Well, so I was at Swarthmore during 911. I remember it happening and watching the twin towers fall with some people in my dorm. And I do you think that happened after 911 where we had a lot of scrutiny on mosques that they need to be scrutinized. And you can argue that there is a chain reaction where Muslims feel like they're being targeted.

Mara:

That feeds into the narrative of terrorists overseas becomes easier to recruit people. And there's this same chain reaction does happen with Chinese issues now where every time somebody is charged with a trade secrets theft or a scientist is... There are a lot of cases involving grant fraud and the NIH right now as well. And every time one of these cases is brought and it turns out to not be airtight. It is reported on with zeal back in China and it feeds this narrative that people are being racially profiled. The Chinese government has a concerted campaign to recruit back scientists from the United States. It would very much like to capture all of the educated people who've come here over the years and that chain reaction makes it a lot easier to do that.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Great. So, I'm going to wind up with one last question and I even warned you about the question a whole week ago if you remember but I do want to just say what a great privilege it was to have this conversation. And I want to thank everybody for your engagement. This is a really interesting book. And one of the many things I got from this book and this conversation is, this isn't going away. So this is not a book about something that's happened in the past that we're never going to see much of again. We're going to be hearing a lot more about this. It's ripped from the headlines kinds of things that are going on right now because we're seeing this as you just referred Mara in the news.

Speaker 1:

And so the other thing I wanted to point out is that, so here's the book and if you're like me, I've always had trouble pronouncing like long words, whether they're names or other words, they never get it right. Mara had a very quick way. She just said, Jim, the H is silent, so it's Mara Hvistendahl. It's not that difficult to do. I was a little embarrassed, but of course you know to say it quickly? But her name is actually easy even to pronounce, even though I'm not very good at doing that. And so my tough question, like a lot of us, when you have a big project, you spent years on it, you've traveled to China, you've traveled all over the US to do it. You've talked to dozens and dozens, maybe a hundred people, and you've done all this incredible work. You've gotten this published from a big publishing house too. It's a big deal. And then what everybody asks you, the question is, okay, this is wonderful congratulations, but what are you going to do next? So can you give us any hints about what interests you now and what you're maybe thinking about next?

Mara:

Well, I would love to write another book. Also a technology themed book, but I'm just now after a few weeks of publicity, getting back to the point where I am reading and thinking again. So. I'm excited to start on the next product.

Speaker 1:

Okay. All right. So we'll be on the lookout for your fourth book at some point in the not too distant future. I think you've been getting a lot of really good feedback on this one and I'll just say congratulations. And what we'll do is let's give you the last word tonight, Mara and thank you so much for spending an hour with us. I encourage everybody to read the book because it really is really, really as interesting as it sounds from Mara's discussion tonight. It's actually even more interesting. And it's also really, really well written. It's really, really well crafted. And this idea of these two levels is really thought out really nicely. And done in the book, but you get the last word Mara and then we'll sign off.

Mara:

Sure. I guess my last word would just be a plug for the externship program because as I was finishing up the book, I had almost as a side note obtained all these documents from the FBI using the Freedom of Information Act requests and then had to pass them and put them out into the world. I hosted a student who's now a sophomore at Swarthmore. His name is Andy Jong and did a great job helping with that project and so that turned into a story for the intercept. Some of it is in the book as well.

Speaker 1:

That's great.

Mara:

It was my first experience with the program and it was great and I appreciate everybody logging on tonight.

Speaker 1:

Okay. And I have put one of the links if you want to get the book, I've just put it in the chat. I'm not sure if that was allowed, but I did it anyway. So there you go. If you're interested in the book, it's called The Scientist and the Spy, and you can get it at your library. You can get it at your local bookstore. You can order it online, whatever you want. Mara, thank you so much. I hope you have a good night. Thanks everybody for joining us at another fantastic SWAT talking and keep your eyes out for your email for the next one. Goodnight.

Mara:

Thank you. Thank you.

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