Grand Forks Air Force Base’s Col. Curry tamps down Fufeng memo worries
Curry’s email comes as the Herald investigates the origins of a memo written by United States Air Force Maj. Jeremy Fox, who is posted at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
GRAND FORKS — Col. Timothy Curry, commander at Grand Forks Air Force Base, downplayed a recent Air Force memo raising concerns about a Chinese agribusiness moving to the community, calling the memo merely a set of “ideas.”
“Some are plausible, some are less,” he said in an email provided to the Herald by City Hall. “And at this time, I still do not have any leadership relaying a clear security threat.”
Curry’s email comes as the Herald investigates the origins of the memo written by United States Air Force Maj. Jeremy Fox, who is posted at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Fox's analysis, dated April 20, raises an alarm about the interest that Chinese company Fufeng Group has shown in constructing a new corn milling plant in Grand Forks — arguing that it could be a source of espionage focused on nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Fox’s memo, obtained by the Herald after it was provided to the city, notes that his opinion doesn’t reflect that of the Air Force or the Space Force. Fox also writes that he completed his research on his own time.
Curry’s comments help underscore that point, driving distance between Fox’s opinions and those of military officials in Grand Forks. Notably, since community leaders announced Fufeng’s plans late last year, no public evidence has emerged that Fufeng plans to engage in espionage, despite speculation about the company’s links in China.
Fox’s memo caused an extraordinary stir in Grand Forks, with Fufeng’s skeptics seizing on the credibility of an Air Force major to bolster concerns about China. But City Hall points out that the document seems to contain basic errors and substitutes speculation for a faithful investigation, which led City Administrator Todd Feland to initially call Fox an “alleged” major.
Mayor Brandon Bochenski pointed out an odd reference to a natural gas pipeline that will help serve the plant — it’s “75 miles away,” the memo states. But the gas pipeline Fufeng expects to be linked to is 13 miles away, Bochenski said.
And despite the memo’s concern that Fufeng would be unusually far north of most competitors and corn production, Bochenski points to USDA data showing tens of millions of annual bushels of corn recently produced in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. Frayne Olson, an agricultural economist at NDSU, said it’s not especially unusual for a facility to move into the fringes of corn production; there’s a history of corn plants inducing their own nearby corn markets.
“I think we're all trying to figure out what exactly (the memo) means and what it is and where it came from,” Bochenski said.
Fox did not respond to repeated requests by the Herald for comment.
Fox’s memo was written in April, but didn’t come to the public’s attention until late May, when it was cited in a government report about the U.S. agricultural relationship with China. That report, from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, quoted Fox’s concern that China might use the new corn mill to spy on Grand Forks Air Force Base. The base provided the commission’s report, quoting Fox, to city leaders, Feland said.
But discovering why Fox wrote the memo was difficult, and competing explanations quickly emerged. A Nellis Air Force Base spokesman first said that Fox had compiled the memo “at the request of military officials.” Pressed for a clarification, he said Fox’s opinion had been requested by Grand Forks Air Force Base’s Office of Special Investigations.
But in Grand Forks, Col. Curry was in touch with City Hall.
“Col. Curry followed up with me this morning,” Mayor Brandon Bochenski said in a June 10 text to the Herald. “He reiterated, the memo from Major Fox was not requested by OSI or the 319th wing/GFAFB.”
Days later, the Nellis Air Force Base spokesman, Lt. Col. Bryon McGarry, sent along another email — contradicting both earlier statements — saying that Fox had acted independently in writing the memo.
“In an effort to raise awareness of what he deemed concerning with respect to the company in question moving into the Grand Forks area, Maj. Fox submitted his personal assessment of potential vulnerabilities to the GFAFB Office of Special Investigations,” McGarry said. In a subsequent statement, he said that earlier statements were issued as the result of a “misunderstanding of whether (Fox) was asked to provide his viewpoint.”
“We now understand that Maj. Fox provided his personal assessment to the local OSI detachment and trusted personal colleagues of his own volition,” McGarry said.
McGarry said he couldn’t speculate about Fox’s motivations, but said Fox “will not face disciplinary action.”
The result still leaves questions about the memo’s origin unanswered. Its arguments bear a resemblance to blog posts written by Ohio-based blogger and supply chain expert Ross Kennedy, a senior fellow with the right-wing organization Security Studies Group.
At one point, Fox even quotes the titles of Kennedy’s blog posts when he riffs on “the Belt and Road coming to the Heartland.” And a page on the LinkedIn website for Maj. Fox shows an “interest” connection with Security Studies Group.
Kennedy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Lack of evidence
Perhaps the most difficult part of Fufeng Group’s arrival is that there is so little hard evidence to help judge the situation, compared with so much concern about what Fufeng’s China connections could mean — much of it pure speculation.
The chairman of Fufeng Group has ties to the Chinese Communist Party, but that’s hardly concerning for a Chinese big business, an expert on China told the Herald. The company says a factory in northern China uses no forced labor, but those reports have recently become much harder to accurately conduct, the Wall Street Journal reports.
A similar situation in Texas, Forbes reports — this one with a wind farm near an air base — captured the attention of state leaders and led to a law keeping “hostile nations” out of Texas’ electricity system. It came with all the same worries about Chinese spying. But, Forbes pointed out, investments in the U.S. also come as Chinese billionaires feel political pressure to move their wealth out-of-country.
In a statement, the COO of the American subsidiary behind Fufeng Group, Eric Chutorash, said that he heads a company that operates “under U.S. laws, rules and regulations.” He said there’s abundant corn in the area — without a competing corn processor — plus plenty of water from the Red and Red Lake rivers.
“As I’ve said in previous interviews, Fufeng USA will not conduct any type of espionage,” Chutorash said.
Fox’s memo and Kennedy’s blog posts offer the same problem. Neither offered any evidence that Fufeng Group will engage in espionage.
The memo claims City Council President Dana Sande could have conflicts of interest through the UND Aerospace Foundation, his employer, which has strong ties to Chinese aviation students and corporate officials. It points out that the foundation requested windows for “touch and go opportunities” at Grand Forks Air Force Base for domestic and international students in 2018 and 2021, but was denied.
That’s not the whole story, Sande says. He’s only directly familiar with one request in his purview in 2018, and he says it was only for domestic flight students.
“We made that (2018) official request at the request of Col. Holliday from the Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Sande said, pointing out that the Air Force had hoped for assistance keeping its air traffic controllers “current” given low flight volume at the base.
“Had this yahoo Fox picked up the phone and made one simple phone call, he could have verified that,” Sande said.
Holliday could not be reached by the Herald for comment.
The credibility of Kennedy, the supply-chain consultant, also is difficult to judge. Earlier this year, he would not explain his client list to the Herald, even though he has been accused of working as a paid operative against the plant (and despite accusing city leaders of conflicts of interest online).
He also has not corrected an error in one of his blogs, pointed out by the Herald six weeks ago — one which he conceded making — that significantly misstates the number of jobs at the expected plant.
At present, the city is working with a Washington D.C.-based attorney at Cooley, a major American law firm, to study whether Fufeng’s planned corn-milling plant requires a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.
The group does exactly what its name suggests: vetting investments from abroad.
It’s unclear whether the D.C. attorney, Bridget Reineking, will find that Fufeng falls under review requirements. But her opinion letter is expected in Grand Forks before the end of the month, and could lead to a review process that might finally give the city a targeted look at any risks inherent in Fufeng’s arrival.
Those risks have dominated the conversation around the planned corn milling plant since its announcement last year. A CFIUS review could be an important step forward for the project given how much of the worry about China has been fed by speculation.
It’s unclear if CFIUS has begun review. Col. Curry had expressed hope in his email that the review had already begun; a Grand Forks Air Force Base spokesperson referred the Herald to CFIUS, but officials at the U.S. Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Lingering concerns about Fufeng — and the apparent need for a more transparent, official opinion — were underscored late last week, when U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., mentioned his concerns about Fufeng in a WZFG radio interview on June 3. They were his most pointed yet on the project.
“Our value chains and our supply chains being so tied to our adversaries is a terrible strategic error that’s been made in the past, and we need to correct it going forward,” Cramer said of countries like Russia and China.
Speaking of China, a radio host asked, would that also mean spiking the deal with Fufeng?
“Absolutely, it would,” Cramer said.