Small Wars Journal

Dangerous Diasporas: How the Trump Administration’s Visa and Immigration Regulations Leave the United States Vulnerable to Foreign Intelligence Exploitation

Sat, 02/11/2017 - 3:23am

Dangerous Diasporas: How the Trump Administration’s Visa and Immigration Regulations Leave the United States Vulnerable to Foreign Intelligence Exploitation

Pierre Robes

The administration of President Donald Trump has recently sparked consternation with its temporary moratorium on entry into the United States by individuals from seven specified countries. Setting aside the moral, ethical, and legal arguments about the restrictions, and taking them at face-value – a measure to facilitate assessment of individuals attempting to enter the United States from failing and failed states – it remains flawed. While the Executive Order prohibits the entry of individuals from countries associated with terrorism – albeit not in a complete fashion, considering the absence of Saudi Arabia – it does nothing to address the threats that emanate from countries which view their entire diaspora as composed of free-range intelligence collectors. Although lower profile than atrocities perpetrated by ISIS adherents and others, the threat from foreign intelligence services is no less an assault on U.S. interests than acts of terrorism and should be treated as a conflict in its own right.

Foreign Intelligence Services’ Asymmetric Attack on the United States

Terrorism is clearly asymmetric warfare and has immediate life-and-death implications. However, clandestine foreign intelligence activity – whether collection of classified and proprietary information or the implementation of a covert perception management campaign, meant to help a foreign government obtain preferred policy outcomes – is also warfare, albeit of a different nature. Foreign intelligence services degrade the United States’ long-term well-being by corroding the elements of national power (ENP) that are necessary for protection and promotion of U.S. interests. The unauthorized release of sensitive government information – a la the unpardonable acts of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden – deprive decision-makers of an informational advantage. Theft of proprietary technology similarly degrades ENPs by helping competitors and adversaries close gaps in capabilities.

An Insufficient Executive Order

Although Trump’s Executive Order may have produced immediate results that were chaotic and arduous – particularly in the burdens it placed on agencies involved -  its premise is reasonable, even restrained. It bars individuals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. These states were already recognized – having been named in a 2016 law (passed under the Obama administration) - as countries of concern.[i] This decision is meant to provide the United States – specifically the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of State (USDS) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) – with sufficient time to conduct a determination of the information needed from any country to adjudicate visas and admissions and determine that an individual is not a threat to security or public safety.[ii] The USDS will then be responsible for requesting that countries provide information within 60 days of receiving notification about these requirements.

The process is transparent – not an opaque, draconian, interminable diktat. DHS has a strict timeline of 30 days to submit a report of its findings to the President. An interagency process including the USDS; DHS; the DNI; and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will develop a uniform process to screen applicant information.

This process mitigates the asymmetric threat of terrorism to the United States – albeit it not perfectly. After all, a government seeking to expel troublesome individuals – or infiltrate disruptive elements into the United States - could provide the Washington with glowing reviews of militant individuals. (The possibility brings to mind the 1981 incident when the Cuban government released thousands of people imprisoned for violent crimes and allowed them to enter the United States.[iii])

What the White House has not indicated any intention of doing is imposing a similar curb on immigration and other travel by individuals from countries that treat their entire diaspora population as an intelligence asset.  Several countries have demonstrated a willingness to exploit the ties of émigrés and foreign ethnic scientists to facilitate technology transfer.[iv] Furthermore, diaspora populations are susceptible to co-optation by foreign governments that cynically exploit cultural ties. According to the Department of Defense’s Personnel Security Research Center, spying prompted by divided loyalties has become the most common motive for espionage by U.S. persons.[v]

The Dragon: China

China has notoriously exploited its transnational population to conduct intelligence activities against the United States. It does not recognize the concept of Chinese-Americans and instead views all individuals of Chinese descent, regardless of location, as ‘overseas Chinese’.[vi] In 2015, the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence cited China as the predominant threat.[vii]

Multiple individuals who have come to the United States from China, ostensibly to pursue higher education, have subsequently been hired by U.S. companies and used these positions to steal proprietary technological information.[viii]  For example Chinese students who graduated from the University of Southern California accepted jobs with U.S. companies and exfiltrated wireless technology information to China, where they established a competing  venture, apparently with the assistance of China’s Tianjin University.[ix]

Chinese visitors need not even leave U.S. campuses to attack U.S. capabilities via theft. Foreign researchers at U.S. institutions have attempted to sell their technology to entities in their home country. Yudong Zhu, an associate professor in the radiology department of New York University’s School of Medicine obtained funding from the U.S. National institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on magnetic resonance imaging.[x] Zhu arranged for two individuals to come to New York from China. All three individuals were associated with the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, which is known to recruit overseas Chinese with technical knowledge and to pursue ventures that may result in technology transfer.[xi] All were eventually charged with conspiring to take a bribe from a Chinese-sponsored research institute and a Chinese medical imaging company to share non-public information about the NIH-funded work.[xii]

The Bear: Russia

It is clear, following the 2016 Presidential election, that Russia has no compunction about engaging in illicit activities directed at the United States.  Aside from cyber mayhem – hacking, as well as cyber-facilitated disinformation – Russia has both the intent and capability to catalyze its ethnic and cultural diaspora. It has created organizations to marshal an international ‘compatriot’ network and used the compatriot concept as a justification for interfering with the sovereignty in Russia’s near-abroad.[xiii] ‘Compatriot’ – as used by Russia – is a loosely defined term that includes individuals who speak Russian as a first language or who identify themselves as ethnically Russia.[xiv]

Russia has not exempted the United States from its compatriot ploy and, instead, it has engaged in efforts that appear directed at developed a cadre of ‘compatriot’ supporters. The head of the Russian Center for Science and Culture was responsible for an exchange program that – for 12 years – provided expenses-paid trips for Americans, to Russia.[xv] Participants came from potentially-influential backgrounds including business executives, political aides, and individuals affiliated with non-profit institutions.[xvi]

The Elephant in the Room: Israel

Israel, a country that has made significant efforts to portray itself as a U.S. ally, has engaged in extensive manipulation of a cultural diaspora to target the United States. As early as 1961 an Israeli agent exploited cultural connections – contacting various rabbis to request information about individuals.[xvii] More recently, an official of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) explained that he “worked for a pro-Israel organization that very openly maintains relations with the Embassy of Israel”.[xviii] John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt – respected academicians - characterized AIPAC as a “de facto agent for a foreign government”.[xix]

This close coordination between a sympathetic constituency and a foreign government can create a dynamic that the latter can exploit to its benefit for intelligence purposes. As of 1999, an AIPAC official communicated classified information – which he obtained from at least two U.S. government officials – to foreign officials.[xx] Although AIPAC is a U.S. organization, Israel’s predilection for dealing with those who feel a cultural bond with it suggests that individuals coming from Israel – who have an even stronger cultural and pragmatic bond – might be viewed as even more desirable agents by Israeli intelligence.

Israel has not simply benefited from misplaced loyalties - it has taken steps to cultivate them. The Israeli government, along with philanthropies, has funded the Taglit-birthright program, which provides members of the Jewish diaspora between the ages of 18 and 26 with a trip to Israel meant to develop a connection with the Jewish state.[xxi] Considering what the Israeli government gained from AIPAC, it is not unreasonable to be concerned that the Tel Aviv will see this indoctrinated crowd as a new constituency from which to recruit agents.


There are two significant national security challenges inherent to diaspora populations seeking visas or immigration. Terrorism is an all-too-vivid concern. However, foreign intelligence services’ exploitation of ethnic and cultural ties can be catastrophically damaging to U.S. national security. Collection and subversion degrade the ENPs that are integral to the protection and promotion of U.S. interests. Consequently, as the Trump administration grapples with the issues of foreign travel to the United States it should ensure that individuals from countries – particularly China, Russia, and Israel – which use their diasporas for intelligence purposes are vetted against similarly rigorous standards. 

End Notes

[i] Diamond, Jeremy. “Trump’s Latest Executive Order: Banning People from 7 Countries and More”. CNN. January 29, 2017.

[ii] Executive Order: Protecting the Nationa from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. January 27, 2017.

[iii] Selwyn Raab. “A Defector Tells of Drug Dealing by Cuba Agents”. New York Times April 4, 1983

[iv] National Counterintelligence Center. Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage – 1995. National Counterintelligence Center. 1996. P. 19.

[v] Herbig, Katherine L. Changes in Espionage in Americans: 1947 – 2007. U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Personnel Security Research Center. 2008. P. 69.

[vi] Solomon, Jay. “Phantom Menace: FBI Sees Big Threat from Chinese Spies”. Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2005;

[vii] Harris, Shane. “FBI Probes ‘Hundreds’ of China Spy Cases”. Daily Beast. July 23, 2015.

[viii] Tromblay, Darren E and Robert Spelbrink. Securing U.S. Innovation. Rowman & Littlefield. 2016

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Weiser, Benjamin. “3 N.Y.U. Scientists Accepted Bribes from China, U.S. Says,” New York Times. May 20, 2013.

[xi] Wong, Wong and Didi Kirsten Tatlow. “China Seen in Push to Gain Technology Insights”. New York Times, June 5, 2013.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Lucas, Edward and Peter Pomeranzev. Winning the Information War, Techniques and Counter-Strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe. Center for European Policy Analysis, 2016. P. 27.

[xiv] Lucas, Edward and Ben Nimmo. CEPA Infowar Paper, No. 1, What Is Information Warfare and how to Win it? Center for European Policy Analysis. P. 6.

[xv] Horwitz, Sari. “Head of D.C.-Based Russian Cultural Center Being Investigated as Possible Spy” Washington Post, 23 October 2013

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Federal Bureau of Investigation. Israeli Intelligence Service in the United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1961. P. 30.

[xviii] Lake, Eli. “FBI Took Long Look at AIPAC Activities”. Washington Times. January 18, 2011.

[xix] Mearsheimer, John and Stephen Walt. “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”. London Review of Books. Vol. 28 (2006) No. 6.

[xx] Lefebvre, Stephane. Spying on Friends?: The Franklin Case, AIPAC and Israel. International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. 19 (2006)

[xxi] Bradley, Matt. “Flap over young Jews’ visits to Holy Land”. Christian Science Monitor. January 12, 2006; Hockstader, Lee. ‘Selling’ Jewishness, Program Flies Youths to Israel”. Washington Post. January 17, 2000.


About the Author(s)

Pierre Robes is the pseudonym for the author, who has served as an Intelligence Analyst with the U.S. intelligence community for more than a decade; holds graduate degrees from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the National Intelligence University; and has written extensively on security and intelligence topics. He can be reached at The views expressed in this essay are entirely the author’s and should not be construed to represent the views of any U.S. government entity.