Senate Passes Peters, Portman Bipartisan Bill to Fix Security Vulnerability 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), applauded the Senate passage of their bipartisan legislation to determine if office space leased by the federal government is owned by foreign entities. The Secure Federal Leases from Espionage and Suspicious Entanglements Act (Secure Federal LEASEs Act) requires 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 was introduced in response to a 2017 Government Accountability Office (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.

“Federal agencies unwittingly leasing office space in foreign-owned properties could pose a threat to our national security. Storing sensitive materials and private data at properties owned by foreign adversaries, especially those with sophisticated intelligence agencies, could leave the federal government susceptible to breaches and attacks,” said Senator Peters. “I am pleased the Senate passed this bipartisan legislation, which will help to ensure that bad actors cannot infiltrate our networks and gain access to our nation’s valuable and sensitive information.”

“By passing this bipartisan measure, the Senate took an important step toward ensuring our federal agencies are prepared to address the risk of espionage and unauthorized cyber and physical access to federally-leased buildings,” said Senator Portman. “This bill will ensure that the federal government has access to leased properties’ ownership information so we can better protect our people and information and I urge my colleagues in the House to pass it soon so it can go to the president’s desk for signature.”

This legislation was drafted in response to a 2017 GAO finding that several federal agencies were leasing high-security office space in foreign-owned properties, including six Federal Bureau of Investigation and three Drug Enforcement Administration 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 aims to close the security loopholes identified by the GAO by directing the 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 GAO’s 2017 report, this bipartisan legislation would ensure that current best practices are followed uniformly throughout the federal 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.