On Sept.20, 2014, agents of the Shanghai State Security Bureau of the Ministry of State Security first contacted me in a bid to recruit me as a spy, requesting I pass US state secrets to them in exchange for cash payments, write reports mining my “Washington DC social network” preferably “in the State Department and the National Security Council” on contentious issues of US “government strategic thinking.”
That began a flirtation that lasted more than two years as I attempted to lure the Chinese into committing themselves to my active recruitment as a spy.
This is not something to play with, especially as Edward Snowden’s massive release of National Security Agency data demonstrated. The US closely watches transmissions from suspicious foreign nationals and in some cases can watch attempts to recruit spies even before they’re recruited.
Between 2008 and 2011, the US Justice Department arrested and prosecuted at least 57 people for espionage working in the service of the Chinese passing classified information, sensitive technology or trade secrets to intelligence agencies, state-sponsored academic or ‘think tanks’, private individuals, or fake businesses in China, according to the Associated Press. Most are now in federal prisons.
My first inclination, which turned out to be wise, was to contact US spooks after the Chinese reached out to me. Look no further for a reason than the case of Kevin Patrick Mallory, 60, a contractor for the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, who was arrested last week for “gathering and delivering defense information to aid a foreign government” and “making material false statements” to the U.S. government, according to his arrest affidavit filed in Virginia federal court last week. He potentially faces the death penalty.
“The people who recruited Mallory are the same people who tried to recruit you,” said Peter Mattis, an analyst for the Jamestown Institute who specializes in the Chinese intelligence services. “The Shanghai State Security Bureau of the MSS are particularly aggressive towards recruiting Americans,” he said during several interviews in recent days. “The MSS comes to people like you. You said no, a friend of mine said no, but Mallory said yes. They have a high-volume model of casting a wide net to see whoever they can reel in. If they get one in 10 or one in 20 to bite, that works for them.”
“One of the things that I have been struck by about a number of Chinese espionage cases is the emphasis on maintaining a relationship,” said Mattis, the Chinese intelligence analyst. He is the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army. “This comes up even before they get into their interest in specific subjects or anything else. At the very least, a “let’s keep the conversation going” kind of attitude in their emails. Not much subtlety in all of this. But what are we expecting from people who probably have lived inside China most of their lives with limited contact with foreigners and limited contact with the business community that uses these kinds of requests?”
One of those who apparently established such a relationship was Mallory, who in March and April “visited Shanghai to meet with an individual (hereinafter PRC1) who represented himself to Mallory as working for a PRC think tank, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS),” wrote special agent Stephen Green of the FBI Counterintelligence Division in a June 21 affidavit and arrest warrant for Mallory filed in Virginia federal court.
“FBI has further assessed that SSSB intelligence officers have also used SASS affiliation as cover identities,” wrote FBI special agent Green. “The MSS can be described as an institution similar to the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (“0CIA”) combined under one intelligence directorate responsible for counter-intelligence, foreign intelligence, and political security,” said FBI counterintelligence division agent Green.
On the day I received my first message from Chinese intelligence agents from the Ministry of State Security, they, of course, didn’t say they were Chinese spies. The note was from “Frank Hu,” a “project assistant” from Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co, saying he had found me on the Internet and was writing to “seek potential cooperation opportunities.”
It sounded innocent enough, but it raised red flags. His company, he said, “is a Shanghai-based consulting firm, specializing in independent policy analysis and advisory services. We strive to help our clients properly assess political dynamics, risks and opportunities in countries and regions they operate in.”
The only online reference to the company was an obscure one that linked back to two well-known Chinese intelligence front groups – the “Chinese Peoples Friendship Association with Foreign Countries” and the “Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences,” (SASS), the latter a known operations center for the MSS which was the formal cover for the Chinese agents who paid Mallory $16,500 in cash which he attempted to smuggle back into the United States in May.
Mr. “Frank Hu” and the “Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co”, in fact, do not exist.
Who were these people? Why did they contact me? I am a journalist who, while having written on Asian affairs for more than two decades, doesn’t focus on China. So I responded that I would be “most interested in hearing more details about how I could be useful for your company’s services to see whether my own skills and expertise and areas of knowledge would be a good fit.”
I wanted to fish to see how I could identify who “Frank Hu” and his non-existent “Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co.” actually were. Five days later, “Mr. Hu” got back to me thanking me and saying one of their geographical priorities is Asia, and asking for “authoritative and practical assessments from the US on political and economic developments across Asia.
The next day I responded saying that I also do risk and political and economic analysis and asking for specifics on what he was hunting for. I had already contacted sources in the US intelligence community for guidance to alert them I was being targeted as a recruit by the Chinese intelligence services and for help to identify from whom these messages were actually coming. Eventually, it was confirmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Counterintelligence Division and other US intelligence agencies that I was being targeted for recruitment by the Chinese Ministry of State Security to be a spy.
“In terms of human source operations, the PRC ‘services’ are not all that sophisticated,” adding, “until they get you on their turf,” one retired career CIA China specialist wrote me, asking to meet in person. “So don’t go there – to Shanghai, that is – for any reason. Frankly, I’d be inclined to drop the whole thing. I don’t think there’s much to be gained, from your perspective. And eventually they’ll figure out you’re just toying with them.”
He wanted to meet in person because, as one learns in spy tradecraft school 101, all communications systems are vulnerable to monitoring. He was specifically very concerned that pursuing my story as a journalist could be misinterpreted by US government intelligence agencies who can monitor all email, telephone, and other internet communications that are engaged with suspected Chinese intelligence agents.
Of particular concern to the U.S. intelligence community is the Chinese targeting of people like me based in Washington, D.C “The FBI Washington Field Office has at least five counterintelligence squads focused on China, covering journalists, students, military attaches, diplomatic personnel, and declared MSS officers,” said an American specialist on Chinese intelligence activities.
“They could have taken the emails you gave them and put the Chinese emails into a 702 collection The FBI Washington Field Office has intelligence squads focused on China, covering journalists, students, military attaches, diplomatic personnel, and declared MSS officers.” and used them as a basis to have sussed out Mallory. It is the people up north who would actually do this,” he said referring to the National Security Agency located at Ft. Meade north of Washington, D.C.
“There are many different ways the white hats could have obtained the email addresses of the bad guys, although mining your supplied correspondence for selectors would be a natural move for them. Pls keep in mind that they are not monitoring YOUR correspondence. 702 is used to target the foreign end of the conversation. They would have to move heaven and earth to unmask your end of it, and your status as a journalist (and likely numbered source) makes it even more sensitive for them,” wrote an American specialist on Chinese intelligence activities.
“The FBI can use an NSL (National Security Letter) with Google and get their mail, whereas the USG could only get their Chinese email through SIGINT collection.”
Five days after “Mr. Hu’s” message, I received a more specific follow-up saying Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting would like to establish a “cooperative relationship” asking if I could “write us one or two investigative reports on Burma and/or Cambodia. For Burma, we are particularly interested in the Kyaukpyu Port project. We would like to know a) how does the US assess the Kyaukpyu Port project; b) the latest unrevealed talks between US and Burma on the project and c) what measures will US take concerning the project. For Cambodia, we wonder if you could write a piece on the latest US-Cambodia talk on the South China Sea issue beyond media reports.”
They would pay, they said. They were asking me to infiltrate the US State Department and National Security Council in exchange for “between 500-1500 bucks (there’ll be extra bonus if the paper is really good).”
“Bingo! I think is the proper interpretation,” I wrote to one career CIA China specialist. “This could be fun.” But “remember I have no idea what this fellow’s real name is, who he works for, or how to trace him. But quite bold – asking to pay me for providing information about two of the most sensitive priority US-China strategic flash point issues in the bilateral balance of power slow motion tussles in SEA. But he did, obviously, get to the point of what his interests are. I am not sure how to proceed, although quite sure engaging in a professional relationship is not on the table. But stringing him along could be fun.”
“Unusually forward-leaning,” the China specialist responded. “Almost a cold pitch… Got some background-checking going. I’ll get back to you.”
Specifically, they requested US government “current policy strategy” on several top hot-button issues between China and the United States. They requested, in writing: 1/ US government strategy on the billion-dollar Chinese Burmese gas pipeline 2/ Spratly Islands 3/ secret talks between the US and North Korea held in Singapore in January 2015 4/ Offered me cash. 5/ Asked me specifically to use my “Washington government social circles” and focus on the “State Department and National Security Council” for my investigations to pass them “information not available on the internet. We already have project managers who do that” 6/ And asked me to meet them in person in Shanghai.”
It would have been insane to discuss cooperation without first alerting America’s spooks, not for the least reason that I could be misinterpreted by U.S. intelligence as, not pursuing journalism but rather working as a spy for the intelligence services of the communist party of the People’s Republic of China.
“The MSS trying to recruit you as a spy may look like silly email chains,” said Joshua Philipp, an investigative reporter who specializes in Chinese intelligence for the exiled Chinese publication Epoch Times. “But those are the same guys who ripped apart the CIA’s operations in China in the last couple of years.”
I was warned by several well-placed US government intelligence agents and independent Chinese intelligence analysts to be cautious and specifically to stay out of Shanghai, concerned that continuing to communicate with the Chinese could be misinterpreted by American counter-intelligence agents, via the vast communications interception powers accorded American law enforcement and intelligence agencies since 9/11, and I might find myself in deeper than I could extricate myself.
“Do not underestimate the surveillance powers or abilities we have. I do not have a lot of confidence in the FBI Counterintelligence division to know what they are doing. Be very careful,” said one former CIA China specialist.
One retired career US intelligence source then sent me a forensic analysis of the Chinese correspondence I had received, and passed on to him, by that point.
“Your guy seems to be up to no discernible good…all false flags and lots of reasons to be suspicious,” he wrote. “Analysts found no evidence that a ‘Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co’ actually exists,” wrote Dr James Mulvenon, vice president of Intelligence division and the director for the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis – Defense Group and a specialist on Chinese military and cyber warfare whose team of linguist analysists analysed the computer communication s sent to me from China.
“The domain spsc.co appears to have never been used to host any website whatsoever…The sole LinkedIn profile associated with SPSC, ‘Daniel Huang,’ has zero connections to other LinkedIn members; there is a high probability that it is fake. The profile providing Chinese characters for Daniel Huang’s name but not for any of the places of his employment is a red flag, suggesting the LinkedIn profile has been created as persona backstopping to provide evidence of the company’s existence to foreigners…Given the totality of the circumstances, it appears highly likely that ‘Frank Hu is misrepresenting himself.”
In early 2015, The Ministry of State Security ratcheted up the stakes. I received another set of unsolicited emails from “Robin Wu” who identified himself as “President, Shanghai Pacific Strategy Consulting Co.”, a slight deviation of the company “Frank Hu” claimed to work for, the “Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co.”
“Dear Thayer” read the missive in very good but flawed ‘Chinglish.’ “Hope this mail finds you well. It’s Robin Wu, the president of Shanghai Pacific Strategy Consulting Co, specializing in independent policy analysis and advisory services. I got to know you by reading your eye-catching report about North Korea on public media. After reading your analysis, I think what happened behind the curtain that you digged out is very interesting and enlightening to us. We think what you’ve remarked on is quite detailed, in-depth and inside, reflecting the actual situation in Northeast Asia. We really appreciate your professional dedication. Since we’re quite interested in the North Korea issue recently, I’m wondering if you could provide us with more details in addition to what you have already revealed to the media. We would pay you consulting fees based on what kind of stuff you could offer.”
Mr. “Wu” was referring to an article I had just published for a North Korea specialist independent web site, NKNews.org., detailing secret talks held between North Korea and the US in Singapore days beforehand.
I answered that I would be interested in talking to them and asked what kind of compensation they were offering.
“Robin Wu” responded, saying he wanted information on “regional strategic issues (mostly in Asia Pacific), broadly like US-China new type of major power relations, US rebalancing strategy and its implications etc, specifically like North Korea nucler crisis, South China Sea issue etc.” and outlining how to file papers five to seven pages long for US$500 to US$1,500 and “extra bonus if the paper is really good.”
He specifically wanted to know about US-North Korea talks held in Singapore in January 2015. That was a reference to highly secret, back channel, “non-official” but in reality official talks that are still not public information, of which I had alluded to in an article days earlier. The Chinese were asking me to pass them classified U.S. government secrets in exchange for cash payments.
He followed up by inviting me to Asia, and specifically to China.
I on passed more new messages to my former CIA career China specialist, saying I didn’t have an endgame beyond having a eye on doing a story on “journalist being wooed by Chinese Intelligence to infiltrate USG,” which certainly appears to be the meat of the latest missive. Mainly, I said, “it pisses me off they 1/ take me for an idiot 2/ probably have done this to uncounted others, and 3/ can get away with it without being countered. I’d like to find out who these folks are and what they want and why they approached me.
I put in calls to the FBI Foreign Counterintelligence division for months, which resulted in no response. Months earlier, I also had other sources, career Central Intelligence Agency sources in the Clandestine Services Bureau who had long experience on Chinese affairs who alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation Counterintelligence Division under the FBI National Security Division that I was being recruited by Chinese agents. They met with FBI CI division agents in person to alert them to my situation.
Rather disturbingly, after a long series of exchanges with various spook agencies, only to receive a phone call from an FBI agent attached to the unit responsible for tracking Chinese attempts to recruit American citizens as spies, who asked me to meet her at a restaurant across the street from FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. I met her and another agent, an ethnic Chinese born and raised in the US who gave me his first name, but not his surname.
I had printed out the detailed communications between “Frank Hu” and “Robin Wu” and me and gave them to the two agents of the FBI, detailing how I had determined they were intelligence agents of the Chinese and their recruitment efforts. I also said I intended to write a story on how the Chinese recruit US citizens as spies and that I was in the process of arranging a face-to-face meeting with the Chinese agents in a neutral country such as Singapore or Thailand.
A few weeks later, the FBI agents requested another lunch meeting. They confirmed that the people who were contacting me were agents of the Ministry of State Security and said that “if we are going to continue to have any further contact with you, you must agree to let us take full control over the operation and not publish any articles.”
I couldn’t agree to such an arrangement. It is not my job—indeed, antithetical to my job—to work as an asset of any government. That is why I contacted the FBI in the first place. So we agreed to disagree, on friendly terms, and went our separate ways.
In the US intelligence services, those who recruit spies from foreign countries target the weak points and vulnerabilities of potential recruits in what they call “MICE”—an acronym for Money, Ideology, Creed, and Ego. Chinese intelligence services try to exploit what they call “The four moral flaws:” lust, anger/revenge, power/fame, and money.
It is unknown which of those might have claimed Candace Marie Claiborne, 60, of Washington, DC, an employee of the US Department of State who was charged with obstructing an official proceeding and making false statements to the FBI in March 2017, for concealing numerous contacts that she had over a period of years with the Shanghai State Security Bureau (SSSB)
The affidavit charging Claiborne reveals that the SSSB can operate all over China and the world, not just in Shanghai. In communications with Claiborne, her SSSB contacts—identified only as Co-Conspirator B and Co-Conspirator C—offered to meet her in Beijing as well as any third country if and when she left the United States.
The affidavit states that Claiborne had known the SSSB officers at least since 2007, when she was stationed in Buenos Aires and had been away from China for two years. Her second tour in China was at the US Consulate General in Shanghai from 2003–05.
Some of the normal MSS covers inside the country include unnamed, numbered government offices (Shanghai Municipal Government Office number seven), think tanks and businesses. Co-Conspirator B operated an import-export company, and he also owned a spa and a restaurant. In addition to allowing Co-Conspirator B to appear as ordinary businessman, these businesses were used to provide employment to Co-Conspirator A. The affidavit does nothing to describe Co-Conspirator C apart from his SSSB affiliation.
The Ministry of State Security is the intelligence operations arm of the Chinese Communist Party, but has provincial departments around the country. But the main task of MSS subnational departments is to run operations against foreign targets to support the one-party regime.
Two other high profile cases were also the targets of the Shanghai State Security Bureau of the MSS. The FBI arrested Glenn Duffie Shriver, who applied to work at the State Department and the CIA in exchange for $70,000 from the SSSB, which recruited Shriver in Shanghai when he responded to an essay contest on U.S.-China relations and encouraged him to take a position in the U.S. government.
Shriver answered an ad in English offering to pay someone with a background in Asian studies to write a paper on US/China relations concerning Taiwan and North Korea. A Chinese woman who said her name was “Amanda” contacted him, met with him, and paid him $120 for the essay he wrote.
In 2011, Shriver confessed in a federal courtroom with his mother watching. At sentencing, he spoke of his hope to serve his country. “Mine was to be a life of service,” he said. “I could have been very valuable. That was originally my plan.”
A Mr. Wu—just as a “Mr. Wu” had approached me– wanted Shriver to apply for a job with the CIA. If he did “we can be close friends,” the MSS told him.
When Shriver was sentenced to four years in federal prison on January 21, 2011, he told the judge “Somewhere along the way, I climbed into bed with the wrong people.” From prison, he told the AP, “When you’re 23 years old living in a very fun city, you almost get addicted to money. After a while it’s kind of like: OK, I’m kind of up on what these guys are doing. But by then it’s just money getting thrown at you. I’m just like … I can apply to this, get some money and then just continue on with my life.”
WRITER: NATE THAYER
– Asia sentinel