The Justice Department is ending its three-year-old China Initiative that targeted economic espionage threats from China, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said in a speech on Wednesday. Instead, the department will launch a broader “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats” as the replacement guiding principle.
The China Initiative was unveiled in November 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It was launched to combat trade secret theft, hacking, economic espionage, as well as “covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers.” Since then it has been used to prosecute over 70 cases, of which only a quarter resulted in a conviction. Throughout the years, the academic and civil society communities have protested that the initiative was both ineffective and discriminative for its racial profiling nature.
In his speech, Olsen addressed these concerns and admitted that the initiative “helped give rise to a harmful perception…that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently.”
He also said the singular focus on China didn’t meet the need to fend off broader threats. "By picking one country, what the China initiative did, it created in some ways a bit of a myopic approach which I don't think really reflects the nature of the threat landscape," Olsen told reporters before the speech, according to Reuters.
After concluding that “this initiative is not the right approach,” Olsen announced the Justice Department will replace the China Initiative with the “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats,” as he named China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as the major threats to U.S. national security. The Justice Department will also continue to use tools like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to protect key technologies, private information about Americans and supply chains and industry.
The revision to the controversial initiative has been met with both celebration and skepticism. “Part of what the China Initiative did was to erect a stage for bad messaging that reeked of bias and prejudice. That stage has been removed and replaced with better messaging,” wrote Graham Webster, research scholar at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, where he leads the DigiChina Project.
“Though today’s announcement is a welcome step, it won’t prevent discrimination from seeping into the FBI’s investigations of Asian Americans and others going forward,” said Patrick Toomey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “Getting rid of the name is not enough.”