At first glance, the largely barren, wind-swept tract of land just north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, looks as if an unlikely location for international espionage.
There’s not much on the greater than 300-acre patch of prime Dakota farmland at once aside from dirt and tall grasses, bordered by highways and lightweight industrial facilities on the outskirts of town of Grand Forks.
The closest neighbors include a crop production company, a truck and trailer service outfit, and Patio World, which sells landscaping supplies for suburban back yards.
But when the three North Dakotans who owned the parcels of land here sold them for thousands and thousands of dollars this spring, the transaction raised alarm bells as far-off as Washington, DC.
That is because the client of the land was a Chinese company, the Fufeng Group, based in Shandong, China, and the property is nearly 20 minutes down the road from Grand Forks Air Force Base — home to among the nation’s most sensitive military drone technology.
The bottom can be the house of a latest space networking center, which a North Dakota senator said handles “the backbone of all U.S. military communications across the globe.”
Farmland in southern North Dakota near Bismarck on September 2, 2016.
Robyn Beck | Afp | Getty Images
Now some security experts warn the Chinese corn milling plant ought to be stopped, since it could offer Chinese intelligence unprecedented access to the ability.
It’s an only-in-America type of fight — pitting the property and economic rights of a community against national security warnings from high-ranking officials within the nation’s capital.
Debate over the project has roiled the small community, with emotional city council hearings, local politicians at odds with each other, and neighborhood groups gearing as much as block the project.
Craig Spicer, whose trucking company borders the Chinese-held land, says he’s suspicious of the brand new company’s intent. “It makes me feel nervous for my grandkids,” he said. “It makes me feel nervous for my kids.”
Gary Bridgeford, who sold his parcel of the farmland to the Chinese company for around $2.6 million this 12 months, said his neighbors have vented their anger at him and planted signs opposing the project in his front yard. “I have been threatened,” he said. “I have been called every name within the book for selling property.”
Bridgeford says he believes the national security concerns are overblown. “How would they gain any knowledge of the bottom?” he asked. “It’s about 12 miles away. It isn’t the same as its round the corner.”
“People hear the China stuff and there is concern,” Bridgeford said. “But everyone has a phone of their pocket that was probably made in China. Where do you draw the road?”
Town’s mayor, Brandon, Bochenski, says he just desires to do business: The proposed $700 million plant would create greater than 200 direct jobs, and other opportunities for logistics, trucking and other support services. He’s pushing for the project, but he acknowledges there are national security concerns which are beyond his ability to process as a small-town mayor.
“I mean, we’re a municipality of about 60,000 people,” he said. “You already know, we do not have the budget to have an intelligence gathering apparatus here. We do one of the best we are able to and depend on our partners.”
Amongst those partners is the US Air Force, which hasn’t taken an official position on the Chinese project in its North Dakota back yard.
But contained in the Air Force, an officer circulated a memo concerning the project in April, casting it as a national security threat to the US and alleging that it suits a pattern of Chinese sub-national espionage campaigns using business economic development projects to get near Department of Defense installations. The officer, Maj. Jeremy Fox, argued that the Fufeng project is situated on a narrow geographic footprint at which passive receiving equipment could intercept sensitive drone and space-based communications to and from the bottom.
“A few of the most sensitive elements of Grand Forks exist with the digital uplinks and downlinks inherent with unmanned air systems and their interaction with space-based assets,” he wrote. And any such data collection “would present a costly national security risk causing grave damage to United States’ strategic benefits.”
Maj. Fox argued that the Air Force would have little ability to detect any electronic surveillance on drone and satellite transmissions being conducted from the Chinese property. “Passive collection of those signals could be undetectable, as the necessities to accomplish that would merely require unusual antennas tuned to the suitable collecting frequencies,” he wrote. “This introduces a grave vulnerability to our Department of Defense installations and is incredibly compromising to US National Security.”
Still, that is not the Air Force’s official position. An Air Force spokeswoman says Maj. Fox wrote the memo on his own, “in an effort to boost awareness of what he deemed concerning with respect to the corporate in query moving into the Grand Forks area, Maj. Fox submitted his personal assessment of potential vulnerabilities to the Grand Forks Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” Lea Greene, spokeswoman for the Air Force Base, said in an announcement.
The corporate at the center of the controversy argues that its project will helps Americans, not hurt them. Eric Chutorash, Chief Operating Officer of Fufeng USA, the US subsidiary of Fufeng Group, dismissed concerns the plant might be used to spy on the Air Force base.
“I am unable to imagine anyone that we hire that is going to even do this,’ Chutorash said. When asked if he could definitively say it would not be used for espionage, he responded, “absolutely.” “We’re under U.S. law, I’m an American citizen, I grew up my whole life here, and I’m not going to be doing any style of espionage activities or be related to an organization that does, and I do know my team feels the very same way.”
But Fox just isn’t the one official concerned concerning the farmland in Grand Forks.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission cited Maj. Fox’s intelligence concerns in a May 26 report, writing, “the situation of the land near the bottom is especially convenient for monitoring air traffic flows out and in of the bottom, amongst other security related concerns.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., opposes the project, despite the economic benefits it would bring to his own constituents. He says he’s suspicious of the Chinese government’s intent. “I believe we grossly under appreciate how effective they’re at collecting information, collecting data, using it in nefarious ways,” he said in an interview. “And so I’d simply as soon not have the Chinese Communist Party doing business in my back yard.”
Each the Democratic Chairman and the Republican rating member of the Senate Intelligence Committee also told CNBC they’re against the project.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee has been loudly sounding the alarm concerning the counterintelligence threat posed by the (People’s Republic of China),” said Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va. “We must always be seriously concerned about Chinese investment in locations near sensitive sites, resembling military bases across the U.S.”
His Republican counterpart, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida agrees. “It’s dangerous, silly, and shortsighted to permit the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies to buy land near U.S. military installations,” he told CNBC in an announcement, noting that he’s co-sponsoring laws that will give the Biden administration the ability to dam such a purchase order. “That is something we must address.”
The project is a sophisticated one, and town of Grand Forks just isn’t expected to start constructing out infrastructure for it until next spring. Mayor Bochenski says he’s moving ahead in good faith, but is able to shift gears if latest information involves light. “We would like to do what’s best for the community, we would like to do what’s best for the country, it is a difficult balance at once,” he said.