WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bipartisan bill authored by U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Rob Portman (R-OH), a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that requires the federal government to determine if office space it leases is owned by foreign entities is headed to the White House to be signed into law.
“Our foreign adversaries continue to try and exploit loopholes in our security systems in order to access sensitive information. This legislation will make it harder for them to access office buildings where our government keeps sensitive materials and strengthen national security,” said Senator Peters. “I am thrilled that the Senate has passed this commonsense bill and urge the President to swiftly sign it into law.”
“I applaud my Senate colleagues for passing this important legislation to help ensure 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 the president to sign this into law soon.”
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.
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.