At first glance, the mostly barren and wind-exposed land just north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, seems unlikely to be an international espionage site.
Today, over 300 acres of Prime Dakota farmland is barely found except soil and tall grass adjacent to highways and light industrial facilities on the outskirts of the city.
Closest neighbors include crop producers, truck and trailer service clothing, and Patio World, which sells landscaping supplies to suburban backyards.
But when the three North Dakota owners, who owned lots of land here, sold them for millions of dollars this spring, the deal sounded a warning far away to Washington, DC.
This is the Fufeng Group, a Chinese company based in Shandong Province, China, where land buyers are just about 20 minutes from Grand Forks Air Force Base, home of the most sensitive military drones in the United States. Because it is in. technology.
The base is also home to the new Space Network Center, which North Dakota State Senator said covers “the backbone of all US military communications around the world.”
Agricultural land near Bismarck in southern North Dakota on September 2, 2016.
Robin Beck | Afp | Getty Images
Currently, some security experts warn that China’s corn mills need to be shut down as they may provide Chinese intelligence with unprecedented access to the facility.
This is the only battle in the United States to vie for community property and economic rights against national security warnings from high-ranking officials in the national capital.
The debate over the project has disturbed a small community with emotional city council hearings, conflicting local politicians, and neighborhood groups preparing to thwart the project.
Craig Spicer, whose truck company is adjacent to China’s property, said he was skeptical of the new company’s intentions. “It makes his grandchildren feel nervous,” he said. “It makes children feel nervous.”
Gary Bridgeford, who sold a plot of farmland to a Chinese company for about $ 2.6 million this year, said neighbors were angry at him and planted a sign in the front yard against the project. “I have been threatened,” he said. “I’ve been called all the names in the book to sell real estate.”
Mr Bridgeford said he believes that national security concerns are exaggerated. “How do they get the knowledge of the base?” He asked. “It’s about 12 miles away. It’s not like next to it.”
“People are listening to China and are concerned,” Bridgeford said. “But everyone probably has a Chinese cell phone in their pocket. Where do you draw the line?”
Mayor Brandon Bochenski said he just wanted to do business. The proposed $ 700 million factory will create more than 200 direct jobs and other opportunities for logistics, trucking and other support services. He is promoting the project, but admits that there are national security concerns beyond his ability to handle as the mayor of a small town.
“That is, we are a municipality with about 60,000 people,” he said. “As you know, we don’t have the budget to install an information gathering device here. We do our best and rely on our partners.”
Among those partners is the US Air Force, which has not taken an official position on a Chinese project in the backyard of North Dakota.
But within the Air Force, a pattern of China’s sub-national spy campaign, where an officer circulated a memo about the project in April, throwing it as a national security threat to the United States, and using a commercial economic development project to approach the Pentagon. Claimed to be suitable for. Pentagon installation. Officer Jeremy Fox argued that the Fufeng project is located in a narrow geographic footprint where passive receivers can intercept sensitive drones and space-based communications to and from the base.
“Some of the most sensitive elements of the Grand Forks are in the digital uplinks and downlinks that are unique to unmanned aerial vehicle systems, and their interaction with space-based assets,” he writes. And such data collection “will pose a costly national security risk that would seriously damage the strategic benefits of the United States.”
Fox argued that the Air Force had little ability to detect electronic surveillance of drones and satellite transmissions from Chinese assets. “The passive collection of these signals cannot be detected, because the only requirement for doing so is to require a regular antenna tuned to the appropriate collection frequency,” he writes. “This poses a serious vulnerability to the Pentagon’s facilities and is extremely damaging to US national security.”
Still, it is not the official position of the Air Force. An Air Force spokeswoman said Fox wrote his own notes. “The Grand Forks Air Force Base Special Investigation Bureau,” said Lee Green, a spokeswoman for the base, in a statement.
The company at the center of the debate argues that the project will help Americans, not hurt them. Eric Chutorash, Chief Operating Officer of Fufeng USA, a US subsidiary of Fufeng Group, has dismissed concerns that the plant could be used to spy on air force bases.
“I can’t even imagine the people we hire to do that,” Chutrash said. When asked if he could assert that he would not be used for espionage, he replied “absolutely.”
“We are under US law and I am an American citizen. I grew up here. I am not going to do any kind of espionage and I am not going to partner with such a company. I know my team. I feel exactly the same. ”
But Fox isn’t the only one concerned about Grand Forks farmland.
The US-China Economic Security Review Board quoted Fox’s intelligence concerns in a May 26 report, stating: concern. “
Senator Kevin Kramer (RN.D.) opposes the project, even though it may bring financial benefits to his own members. He said he doubted the intentions of the Chinese government. “I think we’re very underestimating how effective they are in gathering information, collecting data, and using it in malicious ways,” he interviewed. I mentioned in. “So I would soon stop the Chinese Communist Party from doing business in my backyard.”
Both the Democratic chairman and the Republican ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have told CNBC that they are against the project.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee is loudly alerting us to the threat of counterintelligence by (the People’s Republic of China),” said Mark Warner, chairman of Diva. “We need to be seriously concerned about China’s investment in places close to sensitive areas, such as military bases around the United States.”
His Republican counterpart, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, agrees. “It’s dangerous, stupid, and short-sighted to allow the Chinese Communist Party and its agents to buy land near U.S. military facilities,” he told CNBC in a statement, a bill that would give power to the Biden administration. Said to be co-sponsoring. Block such purchases. “This is something we have to deal with.”
The project is complex and the City of Grand Forks has no plans to begin building the infrastructure for it until next spring. Bochenski said he is moving forward in good faith, but is ready to shift gear when new information becomes available. “We want to do our best for the community. We want to do our best for the country. It’s a difficult balance so far,” he said.