Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland concurred Monday with the U.S. intelligence community’s view that China is a "threat" in certain ways to U.S. interests but declined to say whether he views the country’s leadership in Beijing as an enemy.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. cited remarks from former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who wrote in a Dec. 2020 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that China "poses the greatest threat to America today." Blackburn asked Garland if he considered the Chinese Communist Party an "enemy" of the United States.
"Well, I don’t have the same familiarity with the intelligence information that the director of the national intelligence has, so in terms of comparing, say, the threat from China and the threat from Russia, I’m just not competent to make that comparison," Garland said in response. "I have learned in my professional career not to make judgments on which I am not competent."
"Certainly, from what the director said, there's no doubt that China is a threat with respect to hacking of our computers, hacking of our infrastructure, theft of our intellectual property," Garland said. "All of these are very difficult problems that we have to defend against."
Earlier this month, the Pentagon unveiled a task force to review U.S. policy toward China and make recommendations on how best to counter Beijing’s global influence. Tensions between the U.S. and China escalated during the Trump administration, with federal officials repeatedly accusing Beijing of backing efforts to steal American intellectual property.
Blackburn referenced the "Confucius Institutes" at U.S. universities. While Chinese officials have defended the institutions as mere cultural exchange programs, GOP lawmakers have criticized the program as a tacit effort to spread Chinese government propaganda and gain access to research facilities.
"For instance, recently there was a situation at Harvard with a cancer researcher and he was caught trying to smuggle 21 vials of biological material out of the US and get it to China," Blackburn said. "I would hope that you agree that this threat puts American intellectual property and technology at risk and I would hope that you would assure the American people that you’re going to put the full force of the Department of Justice forward to investigate and prosecute every one of these spies that are working on US soil."
In Jan. 2020, the DOJ charged two Chinese researchers with being foreign agents. One of the researchers, Zaosong Zheng, was arrested at Logan International Airport in Boston with 21 vials of biological samples. He later plead guilty to making false statements to federal officials and was sentenced to time served.
Garland said he was not familiar with the case but pledged that the DOJ would take all necessary steps to combat espionage if he is confirmed as attorney general.
"I can assure you that the Justice Department’s national security division was created in part for the purpose of ferreting out espionage by foreign agents and that that is also the role of the FBI and the two working together," Garland said. "If foreign agents are caught stealing American intellectual property, American trade secrets, American materials, that they will be prosecuted."