Remember Los Alamos

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 9/25

Late last week, Strider Technologies, an independent intelligence firm, released a bombshell report detailing China’s decades-long scheme to steal research from a top American laboratory. Over the past 34 years, the report reveals, at least 162 scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)—a government-funded research facility known for its work on nuclear weaponry—have returned to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to work on research and development programs in their home country. LANL researchers have defected in such great numbers that they have come to be known abroad as the “Los Alamos Club.”

According to Strider’s report, the mass exodus from LANL was the fruit of a strategic initiative by the PRC “designed to incentivize academics, researchers, and scientists to go abroad, deepen their expertise, and return to China to advance its strategic interests.” Although LANL is surely not the only American laboratory the PRC has infiltrated, the lab’s focus on nuclear weaponry and other key projects related to American national security made it an obvious target for the PRC—and make the findings of Strider’s report all the more alarming.

Indeed, Strider reported that, after returning to China, members of the Los Alamos Club went on to “advance key military and dual-use technologies in areas such as hypersonics, deep-earth penetrating warheads, unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), jet engines, and submarine noise reduction.” (I’m sure none of this research would come in handy in the case of a clash between global superpowers.)

The report authors are quick to reassure readers that they do not mean to “suggest any illegal activities were conducted by any individual, university, professor, laboratory or research institute” named in the report. But this should reassure no one. To the contrary, the fact that such blatant theft of intellectual property can occur without violating U.S. law is appalling, and it only underscores the extent to which China has outplayed America.

Even in cases where U.S. law has been blatantly violated, our government has apparently decided that it is better to let academic espionage go unchecked than to risk being called racist for seeking to curb Chinese influence in American research. In March 2022, Biden’s Department of Justice ended the China Initiative, a Trump-era program designed to counter Chinese national security threats on American soil, citing its desire to avoid the appearance of “appl[ying] different standards based on race or ethnicity.” And just last week, two different U.S. judges chose to all but dismiss the crimes of professors at American universities who had concealed their illegal ties to the Chinese government.

As National Association of Scholars Communications and Research Associate David Acevedo explains, the problem isn’t a lack of awareness on the U.S.’s part—it’s cowardice, plain and simple.

All of these bodies know that the problem exists—they are not guilty of ignorance, but of cowardice, trembling before the spurious claim of racism at the expense of American national security. As Strider’s report has now driven home, this cowardice has consequences.

The message to China is clear: Please, come on in and make yourself at home. Steal whatever research you wish. We’ll rarely enforce the law, and even when we do, those convicted will get light sentences. And we’ll call anyone who criticizes our actions a racist. Sound like a plan?

The Strider report should serve as a wake-up call for American leadership. Our refusal to protect our own national security secrets has made us the butt of the Los Alamos Club’s joke—and the theft of research on nuclear weaponry really isn’t funny.

We shouldn’t ignore the lesson of the Los Alamos affair and continue to allow our federally-funded national security research to flow directly to our adversaries.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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