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Forum Editorial: The proposed Fufeng corn mill in Grand Forks demands a stringent security review

China's pattern of using economic development projects to disguise its aggressive espionage in the United States demands that the China-backed corn mill in Grand Forks receive thorough scrutiny.

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The proposed corn mill in Grand Forks has kicked over a hornet’s nest of controversy and criticisms that have divided the community and produced no shortage of drama.

We confess that at first we thought the speculations involving the project leader, China-based Fufeng Group, were overblown and possibly the result of hostility to outsiders.

It seemed far-fetched that a corn wet mill could be in a position to spy on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, located about 18 miles west of the city.

But it’s become increasingly clear that these concerns are well-founded, not the hysterical ravings of those with overactive imaginations.

CNBC reported that in April a concerned Air Force officer circulated a memo saying the plant, to be located on a 300-acre site, fit an alarming pattern of the Chinese opening commercial operations near Department of Defense installations.

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“Some 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,” the Air Force major wrote, according to CNBC. That gathering of sensitive data “would present a costly national security risk causing grave damage to United States’ strategic advantages.”

Last month, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., wrote to Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, and Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary, urging a federal review, with security threats in mind, of the proposed Fufeng corn mill. They were joined by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.

“I am worried about it because China has proven themselves to be both capable and more than willing to steal intellectual property, to intercept the data, and they’re very good at it,” Cramer recently explained on Fox and Friends.

The Grand Forks Air Force Base, he noted, has a wing that flies the Global Hawk, that carries out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Also, a new satellite ground station for low Earth-orbiting satellites at the base soon will provide communications from the sky.

We shouldn’t forget that the Grand Sky business park is a hub, with the Air Force as one of its partners, in fielding state-of-the-art unmanned aerial systems, including technology from the likes of defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and is a major hub of advanced drone applications — just the sort of technology the Chinese have shown themselves to be eager to steal.

Grand Forks city officials, who have issued permits for the plant, have downplayed concerns. Todd Feland, the city administrator, has made the obvious point that a corn plant is very different than Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company that has raised concerns by installing equipment on cell towers in the Midwest that officials said could interfere with Department of Defense communications.

Well, yes — but a 2017 offer by the Chinese to build an ornate $100 million oriental garden, complete with temples, pavilions and a 70-foot pagoda raised red flags when counterintelligence officials examined the proposal, as recently reported by CNN. The garden would have been located on one of the highest points in Washington, two miles from the U.S. Capitol — a perfect perch for electronic eavesdropping.

Federal officials quietly killed the garden. If something as innocuous as a garden could serve as an espionage Trojan Horse, it should be obvious that so could a huge corn plant near an air base and unmanned aerial systems hub.

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Gov. Doug Burgum recently became the latest to add his voice to those calling for a security review of the corn plant “with the utmost urgency.”

We’d strongly urge a different emphasis: utmost thoroughness. We’re not inviting bureaucratic foot-dragging, but the history of Chinese conduct demands a strong, thorough and deliberative federal review of potential security threats posed by the mill.

As Ronald Reagan used to say, citing a Russian proverb, “Trust but verify.”

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