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Matthew Olsen, Countering Nation-State Threats, February 23, 2022

The head of the U.S. Department of Justice's National Security Division, Matthew Olsen, spoke on February 23, 2022. While emphasizing the size and persistence of the threat of the Chinese government, Olsen also announced the Department was ending its China Initiative. Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the initiative on November 1, 2018. Olsen spoke at George Mason University.
February 23, 2022

Good afternoon. Thank you to the National Security Institute and George Mason University for inviting me. Unfortunately, my good friend Jamil Jaffer wasn’t able to be here today.

As I have told Jamil, I am so impressed with what you have built here at NSI. You all have a well-deserved reputation for taking on hard problems and developing practical solutions.

Jamil and I first worked together in the brand new National Security Division more than 15 years ago.

When NSD was established in 2006, I was the senior career official responsible for the Department of Justice’s intelligence work. In November, I returned as the Assistant Attorney General for National Security. It is remarkable to see how the division has grown and what it has achieved over the years. And I am so proud to be leading NSD and its dedicated workforce now.

The Role of the National Security Division

As many of you know, Congress created NSD in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The idea was to unify and prioritize DOJ’s national security work and to promote cooperation with the intelligence community and the broader national security community. In the years since, again and again, the work of NSD has proven critical to our national security.

In everything we do at DOJ, our first priority is to adhere to the Constitution and to pursue equal justice under the law. That mandate is the north star of our work.

The division has a wide range of responsibilities. Those include going after terrorists and spies, including in cyberspace, countering foreign malign influence, enforcing our export controls and sanctions laws, and reviewing foreign investments in U.S. companies.

We also handle intelligence operations and oversight. This includes the FISA process, as well as providing advice and support on a variety of national security laws and policies.

Within each of those areas, NSD is at the forefront of our nation’s efforts to use our legal authorities and tools to tackle evolving national security threats.

When I was first at NSD, our number one focus was on terrorism. That stayed true throughout my time as the General Counsel of NSA and then as Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Today, as I have seen firsthand over my first few months on the job, international terrorism remains a critical concern. But the overall threat landscape is much more complex. We face an elevated threat from domestic terrorists who are motivated by a mix of ideologies. In cyberspace, we confront everything from profit-driven efforts to steal trade secrets and military technology to state-sponsored actors targeting critical infrastructure. Hostile foreign governments assault our democratic and economic institutions in pursuit of strategic competitive advantage.

These threats are dynamic. We and our partners at the FBI and the intelligence community must adapt with determination and agility to meet them.

Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats

Today, I want to focus specifically on the threats we face from hostile nations. In the National Security Division, we are launching a new Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats. Our goal with this strategy is to take a comprehensive approach that draws on the full extent of our tools and authorities to address the alarming rise in illegal activity from hostile nations. This includes growing threats within the United States and to Americans and U.S. businesses abroad.

We see nations such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before. These nations seek to undermine our core democratic, economic and scientific institutions. And they employ a growing range of tactics to advance their interests and to harm the United States. Defending American institutions and values against these threats is a national security imperative and a priority for the department.

Our new strategy is threat driven. We will prioritize NSD’s ongoing work and allocate our resources to address these threats head on, while at the same time preserving our flexibility to counter this activity effectively. We are deploying this strategy to focus on those areas where the department’s authorities can have the most impact in combatting the greatest threats to our national security.

Transnational Repression

Let me give you some examples.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in efforts by authoritarian regimes to interfere with freedom of expression and punish dissidents abroad. These acts of repression cross national borders, often reaching into the United States.

We have pursued agents of the Chinese government who have tried to coerce American citizens and residents to comply with China’s repressive and extralegal orders. For example, we charged PRC government officials for taking part in Operation Foxhunt, an illegal multiyear campaign to coerce the return of certain Chinese nationals to China. What is alleged in the indictment represents a direct affront to the rule of law, human rights and American sovereignty. Instead of operating with the approval and coordination of our government, PRC officials traveled to the United States and directed PRC operatives to violate U.S. law. This scheme included, for example, threatening one victim’s daughter over social media and even bringing his elderly father from China to the United States to warn that the victim’s family would be harmed if the victim did not return. DOJ has charged nine people in relation to Operation Foxhunt, including for acting as illegal agents of the PRC government and for interstate and international stalking.

Just last month, we charged four senior officials of the government of Belarus. We allege that they conspired to use a false bomb threat to unlawfully divert a passenger flight that was carrying American citizens in order to arrest a prominent Belarusian dissident.

And last summer, we charged four Iranian intelligence agents for conspiring to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist and human rights activist who was speaking out against Iran’s repressive laws and practices.

This sort of oppressive behavior is antithetical to our values as Americans. People from all over the world are drawn to the United States by the promise of living in a free and open society — one that adheres to the rule of law. To ensure that this promise remains a reality, we must continue to use all of our tools to block authoritarian regimes that seek to extend their tactics of repression beyond their shores.

Foreign Malign Influence

We must also defend the integrity of American political discourse by exposing foreign malign influence campaigns. Our laws demand that foreign governments and agents be transparent about their efforts to influence the American public and insist that they respect those parts of our electoral processes that are reserved to Americans alone.

In recent years DOJ has exposed and prosecuted covert influence efforts undertaken on behalf of the governments of Russia, China, Malaysia and Pakistan, to name just a few. At the same time, we are strengthening the civil and administrative enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Cyber Threats

The failure of hostile nation states to respect national borders and basic legal norms is even more stark in the cyber realm. We continue to see costly interference with critical infrastructure and public service systems, supply chains and private businesses. We also confront campaigns of theft of sensitive information, ransomware attacks and digital extortion.

Last year, the PRC government engaged in a malicious cyber campaign using vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange Server that targeted thousands of victims around the world.

Russia’s Solar Winds attack similarly compromised tens of thousands of networks globally, including those of U.S. federal, state and local governments.

Iranian government actors have interfered with the systems of a broad range of victims in critical infrastructure sectors.

And North Korean government actors have robbed cryptocurrency exchanges and central banks alike, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars and evading international sanctions designed to limit their weapons programs.

Our role at DOJ is to seek to identify and disrupt cyber threats to national security and hold malicious actors accountable wherever possible.

Espionage and Export Control

Finally, of course, we remain vigilant against core national security threats like traditional espionage activities and efforts to evade export control and sanctions laws. It is essential that we thwart attempts to unlawfully obtain classified information relating to our national defense, weapons systems and sensitive technologies and research.

We must continue to hold rogue actors accountable for their malign activities and work with like-minded partners to deter and impose consequences on those who flout the rule of law.

The PRC Threat

As you can see from these examples, we at the Justice Department confront threats from a variety of nation-state actors. Our new strategy reflects this reality — there is no one threat that is unique to a single adversary.

At the same time, it is clear that the government of China stands apart. So, I want to address how the department’s approach to Chinese government activity fits within our overall strategy.

As the FBI Director publicly noted a few weeks ago, the threats from the PRC government are “more brazen [and] more damaging than ever before.” He is absolutely right: the PRC government threatens our security through its concerted use of espionage, theft of trade secrets, malicious cyber activity, transnational repression, and other tactics to advance its interests — all to the detriment of the United States and other democratic nations and their citizens around the world.

To be clear, we are focused on the actions of the PRC government, the Chinese Communist Party, and their agents — not the Chinese people or those of Chinese descent. As we talk about the threats that the PRC government poses to the United States, we must never lose sight of that fundamental distinction. We must always be vigilant to ensure that no one is treated differently based on race, ethnicity, familial ties, or national origin. This is a foundational commitment of the Department of Justice.

I’ll give you a few examples of what the PRC government is doing.

First, it has targeted U.S. citizens with connections to the intelligence community to obtain valuable government and military secrets. In recent years, we have prosecuted four espionage cases involving the PRC, reflecting a concerted effort to steal our most sensitive information.

Second, the government of China has also used espionage tools and tactics against U.S. companies and American workers to steal critical and emerging technologies. Agents of the PRC government have been caught stealing everything from cutting-edge semiconductor technology to actual seeds that had been developed for pharmaceutical uses after years of research and the investment of millions of dollars.

Third, the PRC government has used malicious and unlawful cyber campaigns to pursue technological advancement and profit. The PRC reaps the benefits of these criminal activities, while the victims, including governments, businesses and critical infrastructure operators, lose billions of dollars in intellectual property, proprietary information, ransom payments and mitigation efforts.

Finally, China’s government has gone to great lengths to silence dissent. It has intimidated journalists and employed a variety of means to attempt to censor and punish U.S. citizens, residents, and companies for exercising their rights to free expression. I mentioned earlier Operation Fox Hunt — the PRC’s illegal effort to coerce the return of certain Chinese dissidents to China — which is just one example.

Strategic Review

Against this backdrop, the department announced the “China Initiative” in 2018. The idea behind the initiative was to develop a coherent approach to the challenges posed by the PRC government. The initiative effectively focused attention on the multi-faceted threat from the PRC. But it has also engendered growing concerns that we must take seriously.

I want to take this opportunity today—discussing our approach to nation-state threats overall—to also address the China Initiative directly.

We have heard concerns from the civil rights community that the “China Initiative” fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias. To many, that narrative suggests that the Justice Department treats people from China or of Chinese descent differently. The rise in anti-Asian hate crime and hate incidents only heightens these concerns. The Department is keenly aware of this threat and is enhancing efforts to combat acts of hate. These efforts are reflected in the Attorney General’s memorandum issued last year following the enactment of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.

There are also increasing concerns from the academic and scientific community about the department’s pursuit of certain research grant fraud cases. We have heard that these prosecutions — and the public narrative they create — can lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in this country.

Safeguarding the integrity and transparency of research institutions is a matter of national security. But so is ensuring that we continue to attract the best and the brightest researchers and scholars to our country from all around the world — and that we all continue to honor our tradition of academic openness and collaboration.

In light of these concerns, we began a review soon after I took office. The review’s purpose was forward-looking. The key question was whether this framework still best serves the strategic needs and priorities of the department. While I remain focused on the evolving, significant threat that the government of China poses, I have concluded that this initiative is not the right approach. Instead, the current threat landscape demands a broader approach.

I want to emphasize my belief that the department’s actions have been driven by genuine national security concerns. But by grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, we helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently.

I began my career as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division. The department is committed to protecting the civil rights of everyone in our country. But this erosion of trust in the department can impair our national security by alienating us from the people we serve, including the very communities the PRC government targets as victims. Our reputation around the world for being a country dedicated to civil rights and the rule of law is one of our greatest strengths.

As part of this review, I have paid particular attention to cases involving academic integrity and research security. When it comes to these cases, the National Security Division will take an active supervisory role in the investigations and prosecutions. In evaluating cases moving forward, NSD will work with the FBI and other investigative agencies to assess the evidence of intent and materiality, as well as the nexus to our national or economic security. These considerations will guide our decisions — including whether criminal prosecution is warranted or whether civil or administrative remedies are more appropriate.

In addition, the White House Office of Science and Technology has released new guidance to federal funding agencies, including procedures to correct inaccurate or incomplete prior disclosures. These agencies have primary responsibility for research integrity and security. Where individuals voluntarily correct prior material omissions and resolve related administrative inquiries, this will counsel against a criminal prosecution under longstanding department principles of prosecutorial discretion.

Make no mistake, we will be relentless in defending our country from China. The Department will continue to prioritize and aggressively counter the actions of the PRC government that harm our people and our institutions. But our review convinced us that a new approach is needed to tackle the most severe threats from a range of hostile nation-states.

NSD’s Approach Moving Forward

Going forward, the National Security Division will pursue this work guided by our Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats. Our recent experience confronting the varied threats posed by the Chinese government has shown that a multi-faceted challenge demands an integrated and multi-faceted response. We need to expand our approach to these threats by recognizing the capabilities of each hostile nation and the full spectrum of activity each country undertakes to achieve its goals. And we must align our capabilities, tools and resources with those across the federal government to meet and counter these threats.

Our work will be informed by three strategic imperatives.

First, we must continue to defend core national security interests and protect our most sensitive information and resources. We will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute espionage, export control and sanctions violations, and interference with our critical infrastructure.

Second, we must protect our economic security and prosperity, including key technologies, private information about Americans and supply chains and industry. We will bring all tools to bear, including the regulatory authorities of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and Team Telecom — as well as criminal process where appropriate — to prevent and mitigate harms from economic espionage, hostile manipulation and cyber-enabled malicious activity.

Third, we must defend our democratic institutions and values to ensure that the promise of freedom remains a reality in the face of rising authoritarianism. We remain steadfast in our commitment to preventing malign influence inside our borders and to promoting freedom of expression and democracy against corrupt and repressive forces.

As we move forward, the department remains committed to confronting any nation that threatens U.S. national security, economic security or our democratic institutions and freedoms.

We will use all the legal tools in our arsenal to combat these threats. The cornerstone of our work at the Justice Department is to investigate and prosecute crimes sponsored by hostile governments and their agents. This includes prosecuting state agents for espionage, hacking campaigns against our government and the private sector, and the repression of critics, as well as efforts to manipulate public discourse in the United States.

In addition to our criminal enforcement work, NSD will use our civil and administrative tools to mitigate threats from foreign investment activity and foreign interests that seek to secretly influence public opinion in the United States.

We also will support broader whole-of-government efforts — which include diplomatic engagement, the use of economic tools and resilience building in communities within the United States and abroad — to address these threats. We will reach out, along with our federal partners, to build trust with affected communities to understand their public safety needs, and to ensure they feel comfortable reporting crimes and incidents.

Finally, we will continue to engage with democratic allies to share information and to discuss how we can make our partner countries more secure. Together, we will develop strategies for effectively responding to these grave threats to the rule of law and to our economic integrity.


The United States is a beacon for people all over the world who seek to live in an open and democratic society. It is our duty in the National Security Division to protect the United States from the myriad threats we face, while staying true to the Constitution and the values of the Justice Department. I know that this commitment to securing equal justice while defending our national security is shared by everyone in the National Security Division and the Department of Justice.

With that, my thanks again to John, to NSI, and to all of you for being here. I would be happy to take some questions.