By Daphne Psaledakis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI wished it had taken swifter action as Beijing recruited U.S.-based researchers to transfer intellectual property from American laboratories, a senior official at the agency said on Tuesday during Senate testimony.
The admission by John Brown, assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division at the FBI, backed up a Senate subcommittee report that found federal agencies had responded too slowly as China recruited the researchers, leaving U.S. taxpayers unwittingly funding the rise of China's economy and military.
"With our present-day knowledge of the threat from Chinese plans, we wish we had taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past," Brown told a Senate subcommittee. "The time to make up for that is now."
Despite China's announcement in 2008 of the Thousand Talents Plan - for which China had originally hoped to recruit 2,000 people but ended up recruiting more than 7,000 by 2017 - the FBI did not respond strongly until last year, the report released on Monday by the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found.
Washington has confronted Beijing over what it believes are some illicit methods to rapidly acquire technological advances, one of many conflicts in the trade war between the two countries. The Chinese government has repeatedly insisted Washington has exaggerated the problem for political reasons, and has dismissed espionage allegations as groundless.
The senators also pressed officials from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy and State Department about what should be done to counter China's efforts to steal intellectual property.
"I hope very much that this is one of the first steps we take in developing a real national strategy in combating this because clearly China has a strategy, and we need one of our own," Senator Maggie Hassan said.
Senators Rob Portman, the Republican subcommittee chairman, and Tom Carper, its top Democrat, said on Monday they would use the report to write legislation to end "this abuse" of U.S. research, intelligence property and taxpayer money.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Matthew Lewis)