Newly installed senior counterintelligence official names China as top long-term threat

“The bottom line is, intelligence services and our adversaries are going to do what they do regardless of who’s in office,” said Orlando during an interview with Yahoo News last month. “From my view, the Chinese Communist Party will be the long-term threat for us this century and beyond,” he continued. “They are going to be the economic and national security challenge of this time.”

On Wednesday, with the resignation of his boss, William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Orlando effectively became the top counterintelligence official in the country. President Biden will need to nominate a new director to be confirmed by the Senate, but Orlando will perform those duties until he does. Both Orlando and Evanina have served under a number of presidents, and Orlando says the threat is the same, regardless of the administration.

Orlando’s career has involved more than chasing Chinese spies. He led the team that investigated Russian student and gun activist Maria Butina, launched the FBI’s Iran threat task force and analyzed Iranian threats to the U.S. after President Donald Trump ordered a lethal drone strike against Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military official, and led the bureau’s response when a Saudi gunman killed three U.S. sailors in Pensacola, Fla., last winter.

In November, Orlando took on a new role as the deputy head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a small division within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The center has assumed new relevance as concerns escalate over foreign spies infiltrating digital networks, academia and corporate suites.

While he got the job during Trump’s presidency, Orlando’s concerns about China echo those of the Biden administration. During a confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, testified that Biden sees China as a global competitor, but she condemned its leaders’ aggressive intellectual property theft, espionage and human rights abuses.

Orlando’s career has shaped his views on China. When he graduated from the FBI Academy in 2003, many of his colleagues were focused on the war on terror and the then recent invasion of Iraq. But around the same time, the bureau also decided to install counterintelligence squads in every FBI field office across the country, 56 of them at that time. Orlando, originally from New York and possessing an undergraduate degree in business, was sent to Pittsburgh.

While Pittsburgh in the early 2000s might not have seemed like a hotbed for Chinese spies, Orlando said he learned a lot about how the Chinese government was targeting advanced technology at universities like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. “There was a recognition that the Chinese government was looking to loosely acquire technology, as they are doing today,” he said.

The FBI believed China was deploying “nontraditional collectors,” or students and academics, to go after that information — rather than traditional spies working out of the embassies. “A lot of our work was really trying to turn over the stones and figure out how is this happening with not a lot of lead information to do it,” Orlando recalled.

He began traveling to China during a stint at FBI headquarters in Washington, an experience he said gave him “an opportunity to see firsthand how the Chinese intelligence service operates, and the authoritarian environment that it is.”

Orlando recalled catching strangers coming out of his hotel room and catching sight of microphones installed in every taxi “for his safety.” Those brazen actions marked the Chinese services as different from the FBI in his mind, which operates “under the Constitution,” Orlando said.