Peters, Portman Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Shine Light on Security Risks Posed by Foreign Ownership of Federally Leased Properties

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Rob Portman (R-OH) today introduced bipartisan legislation to determine if office space leased by the federal government is owned by federal entities. The Secure Federal Leases from Espionage And Suspicious Entanglements Act (Secure Federal LEASEs Act) would require the identification of all individuals who own or benefit from partial ownership of a property that will be leased by the federal government for high-security use. The bill, which would encourage federal agencies to better evaluate and anticipate the security risks of leasing foreign-owned property, was drafted in response to a 2017 Government Accountability (GAO) report which indicated that federal agencies were vulnerable to espionage and other cyber intrusions because foreign actors could gain unauthorized access to spaces used for classified operations or to store sensitive data.

“I am deeply concerned by the national security and privacy implications of federal agencies unknowingly leasing office space in foreign-owned properties. Sensitive materials and private data housed in properties owned by foreign adversaries, especially those with sophisticated intelligence agencies, is simply an unacceptable security risk for our nation,” said Senator Peters. “This bipartisan legislation will help agencies remain vigilant against bad actors, who are increasingly constantly trying to find new ways to infiltrate our networks and gain access to our nation’s valuable and closely guarded information.”

“I am glad to partner with Senator Peters to introduce the Secure Federal LEASEs Act, which will address a serious national security risk,” said Senator Portman. “Our federal agencies need to know who owns the properties that house their personnel and sensitive information so they can take appropriate steps to mitigate the risk of espionage and unauthorized cyber and physical access to buildings.  Our bill will ensure that the federal government has access to leased properties’ ownership information so we can better protect our people and information.”

In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) discovered that several federal agencies were leasing high-security office space in foreign-owned properties, including six Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and three Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) field offices, which store law enforcement evidence and other sensitive data. Agencies are often unaware of foreign ownership of their office spaces. While many of the foreign owners identified in the GAO report were companies based in allied states such as Canada, Norway, Japan or South Korea, other properties were owned and managed by entities based in more adversarial nations. The report noted that Chinese-owned properties, in particular, presented security challenges because of the country’s proclivity for cyberespionage and the close ties between private sector companies and the Chinese government. The GAO report highlighted the dangers posed by these properties, indicating that “leasing space in foreign-owned buildings could present security risks such as espionage, unauthorized cyber and physical access to the facilities, and sabotage.”

The Secure Federal LEASEs Act would aim to close the security loopholes identified by the GAO by directing General Services Administration (GSA) to design a verification system that identifies a property’s owners if the space would be used for high-security purposes. While GSA and other federal agencies have made positive changes in response to the GAO’s 2017 report, this bipartisan legislation would ensure that current best practices are followed uniformly throughout government, and that improved practices will be implemented in the near future. The bill also requires GSA and federal agencies to include provisions in their leasing agreements which will, for high-security spaces, limit property owners’ physical access to government-rented space.