At first glance, the largely barren, windswept stretch of land just north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, seems an unlikely location for international espionage.
On Dakota’s 300-acre stretch of prime farmland, there’s not much left now but dirt and tall grass, bordered by highways and light industrial facilities on the outskirts of town.
The closest neighbors are a crop production company, a truck and trailer service company, and Patio World, which sells garden supplies for suburban backyards.
But when the three North Dakotans who owned the lots here sold them for millions of dollars this spring, the transaction set off alarm bells in Washington, D.C.
Grand Forks Air Force Base
That’s because the land’s buyer was a Chinese company, the Fufeng Group, based in Shandong, China, and the property is only about 20 minutes from Grand Forks Air Force Base – home to some of the most sensitive military drones. of the country’s technology.
The base is also home to a new space networking center, which a North Dakota senator says is “the backbone of all U.S. military communications around the world.”
Farmland in southern North Dakota near Bismarck on September 2, 2016.
Robyn Beck | Afp | Getty Images
Now, some security experts are warning that China’s corn mill should be shut down, as it could give Chinese intelligence agencies unprecedented access to the facility.
It’s a battle unique to America: A community’s property and economic rights are pitted against national security warnings from senior officials in the nation’s capital.
Debate over the project has rocked the small community, with emotional hearings from the city council, local politicians at odds with each other and neighborhood groups preparing to block the project.
Craig Spicer, whose transportation company borders the Chinese-occupied country, said he is suspicious of the new company’s intent. “It makes me nervous in front of my grandchildren,” he said. “It makes me nervous in front of my kids.”
$2.6 million sales
Gary Bridgeford, who sold his farmland plot to the Chinese company this year for about $2.6 million, said his neighbors have expressed their anger at him and posted signs against the project in his front yard. “I have been threatened,” he said. “I’ve been called all the names in the book for real estate sales.”
Bridgeford said he believes national security concerns are overblown. “How would they get any knowledge of the base?” he asked. “It’s about 20 kilometers away. It’s not like it next door.’
“People are hearing the Chinese stuff and there’s concern,” Bridgeford said. “But everyone has a phone in their pocket that was probably made in China. Where do you draw the line?”
The city’s mayor, Brandon Bochenski, said he just wants to do business: The proposed $700 million plant would create more than 200 direct jobs and other opportunities for logistics, freight transportation and other support services. He insists on the project, but he acknowledges there are national security concerns that he can’t handle as mayor of a small town.
‘The best we can’
“I mean, we’re a congregation of about 60,000 people,” he said. “You know, we don’t have the budget to have an intelligence-gathering device here. We do our best and rely on our partners.’
One such partner is the US Air Force, which has not taken an official position on the Chinese project in North Dakota’s backyard.
But within the Air Force, an officer circulated a memo about the project in April, calling it a national security threat to the United States and claiming it fits into a pattern of Chinese sub-national espionage campaigns that use commercial economic development projects to get close to to come to the department. of defense installations. The officer, Major Jeremy Fox, argued that the Fufeng project is in a narrow geographic footprint where passive receiving equipment could intercept sensitive drone and space-based communications to and from the base.
“Some of the most sensitive elements of Grand Forks exist with the digital uplinks and downlinks inherent in unmanned aerial systems and their interaction with space-based assets,” he wrote. And such data collection “would pose a costly national security risk and seriously damage the strategic advantages of the United States.”
Fox argued that the Air Force would have little ability to detect electronic surveillance on drone and satellite broadcasts conducted from Chinese ownership. “Passive collection of those signals would be undetectable, because the requirements to do so would only require ordinary antennas tuned to the correct collection frequencies,” he wrote. “This introduces a serious vulnerability to our Department of Defense installations and poses an incredible threat to US national security.”
Yet that is not the official position of the Air Force. An Air Force spokeswoman said Fox single-handedly wrote the memo: “In an effort to raise awareness of what he thought of the company in question moving to the Grand Forks area, Maj. Fox submitted his personal review of potential vulnerabilities with the Grand Forks Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” Lea Greene, a base spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The company at the heart of the debate argues its project will help, not hurt, Americans. Eric Chutorash, chief operating officer of Fufeng USA, the US subsidiary of Fufeng Group, dismissed concerns that the plant could be used to spy on the air base.
“I can’t imagine anyone we hire would ever do that,” Chutorash said. When asked if he could say definitively that it wouldn’t be used for espionage, he replied, “Absolutely.”
“We’re under US law, I’m a US citizen, I grew up here all my life and I’m not going to do any spying activities or be associated with a company that does, and I know my team feels exactly the same,” Chutorash said. .
But Fox isn’t the only official concerned about farmland in Grand Forks.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission cited concerns over Fox’s intelligence services in a May 26 report, writing: “The country’s location close to the base is particularly convenient for monitoring air traffic flows in and out of the basis, among other safety-related concerns.”
sen. Kevin Cramer, RN.D., opposes the project, despite the economic benefits it could bring to its own constituents. He said he is suspicious of the Chinese government’s intentions. “I think we grossly underestimate how effective they are at gathering information, collecting data and using it in nefarious ways,” he said in an interview. “And so I would just as quickly not let the Chinese Communist Party do business in my backyard.”
Both the Democratic chairman and the Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee told CNBC they are against the project.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee has sounded the alarm about the counterintelligence threat posed by the (People’s Republic of China),” said D-Va chairman Mark Warner. “We should be deeply concerned about Chinese investment in sites near sensitive sites, such as military bases in the US”
His Republican counterpart, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, agrees. “It is dangerous, foolish and shortsighted to allow the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies to buy land near US military installations,” he said in a statement to CNBC, noting that he was co-sponsoring is of legislation that would give the Biden administration the power to block such a purchase. “This is something we need to address.”
The project is complicated and the city of Grand Forks is not expected to begin building infrastructure until next spring. Bochenski said he is moving forward in good faith but is ready to switch if new information comes to light. “We want to do what’s best for the community, we want to do what’s best for the country, it’s a difficult balance right now,” he said.