How the Chinese recruit American journalists as spies

By Nate Thayer

How China Recruits Americans to Spy

July 1, 2017

 

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 D.C. social network” of US government officials preferably “in the State Department and the National Security Council” on hot button contentious issues of US “government strategic thinking.”

This is not something to play with. The Chinese cast a wide net for western intelligence, and it can – and does – get a person arrested.

In many cases, the US has already picked up the overtures to potential candidates. My first inclination, which turned out to be wise, was to contact US spooks.

On June 22, Kevin Patrick Mallory, 60, a contractor for the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, was arrested 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 ten or one in 20 to bite, that works for them.”

“In March and April, Mallory 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.

“Since at least 2014, the FBI has assessed that the Shanghai State Security Bureau (“SSSB”), a sub-component of the Ministry of State Security (“MSS”), has a close relationship with SASS and uses SASS employees as spotters and assessors,…The MSS can be described as an institution similar to the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) 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.”

Frank called me a “renowned investigative journalist” who “has written lots of in-depth investigative political reports.” Therefore, he said, “we wonder if you are interested in becoming a part-time political consultant for us and using your wide social network to provide us with insightful consultations. Look forward to your reply. Regards Frank Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co.”

I had never heard of these people and, suspicious, did cursory due diligence. The only online reference to the company was an obscure one that linked back to the well-known Chinese intelligence front group – the “Chinese Peoples Friendship Association with Foreign Countries” and to the “Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences,” (SASS), which allows their name to be used as a non-official cover operation center for the MSS which they did 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 had no intention of entering into a business relationship with them, but I did have an interest in fishing to see how I could identify whom “Frank Hu” and his non-existent “Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co.” actually were. Five days later, “Mr. Hu” got back to me 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. Mr. Thayer, as a renowned correspondent on Asian affairs, we wonder if you happen to have a professional network of experts from the strategic circle and government on Asian affairs. It would be wonderful if you have such a network and use it to provide us with insightful consultations. Hope it turns out we are a good fit. Look forward to hear from you. Best Frank Shanghai Pacific & International Strategy Consulting Co.”

The next day, I responded, saying that I also do risk 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, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Foreign Counterintelligence Division and other US intelligence agencies confirmed that I was being targeted for recruitment by the Chinese Ministry of State Security to be a spy.

And I was warned that pursuing a journalist investigation could end badly.

“You are coming to the party Saturday night, right? Why don’t you come over an hour early as I have something I want to talk about in person,” one retired career CIA China specialist wrote me. “In terms of human source operations, the PRC ‘services’ are not all that sophisticated,” he said, adding, “until they get you on their turf. 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 U.S. government intelligence agencies who can monitor all email, telephone, and other internet communications that are engaged with suspected Chinese intelligence agents.

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 Dept 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.”

Within weeks, two different people from the same Shanghai “consulting group” contacted me to offer payments in exchange for mining “your extensive social networks in Washington D.C.” to write reports on “current US strategic planning within government” in exchange for payments of “$500-to $1500 (or more if it is really good stuff).”

Specifically, they requested US government “current policy strategy” on several top hot button issues of contention 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.

 

So began a year-long process of communicating with Chinese intelligence agents trying to recruit me to steal US national security secrets in exchange for payment, and come meet them in Shanghai “to discuss cooperation.”

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.

 

“There are still some odd things about the haste, the directness, almost pushiness. You could respond with a bit of probing on your own, indicating you are careful about your business associations, that you might be interested in meeting in person and learning more about their business and interests, but still non-committal,” advised another U.S. government intelligence analyst who specializes on China. “Tell him you have no travel plans currently (don’t meet on his turf). Just to keep the conversation going. I’ll be in touch if I hear anything,” he said.

 

 

“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, their primary concern was 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 Foreign Counterintelligence division to know what they are doing. Be very careful,” said one former CIA China specialist.

Another long time source, a career CIA clandestine operative who spent 30 years in Asia, was more blunt. “I would rather my sister be a whore than work for FBI CI,” he said. “Your main worry might not be the Chinese, but our team because they don’t know what the fuck they are doing.”

One retired career U.S. 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 & Director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis – Defense Group, Inc., and a specialist on Chinese military and cyber warfare whose team of linguist-analysts and technical specialists analyzed the computer communications 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 back stopping 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,” wrote “Robin Wu”. “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 Aisa (sic). 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 U.S. in Singapore days beforehand.

I replied to “Mr. Wu” with this:

件人:Nate Thayer <thayernate0007@gmail.com>

发送时间:2015年1月29日 (星期四) 01:23

收件人:Robin Wu <robinwu@spsc.co>

主 题:Re: Greetings from Shanghai

 

Hi Robin Wu:

 

Thank you for your thoughtful message and most generous, kind words regarding my investigative work on North Korea.

 

Indeed, I do spend much of my time conducting research, mostly based here in Washington, D.C., on contemporary North Korean political and economic affairs, and the important strategic role these issues play in Northeast Asia…I would be very interested in talking with you further on what more specifically you are interested in to see whether my work would be a good fit with your interests and goals.

 

What sort of issues are you interested in focusing on? What sort of format do you like this kind of research best packaged in reports? What kind of compensation would you offer in exchange for employing my services?

 

Can you tell me a bit more about what the objectives and areas of research priorities are for your company? And whether you have people only in Shanghai or also in D.C and elsewhere? Where in Shanghai–one of my favorite cities–are you located?

 

If you have any further questions feel free to ask me. Is this the best way to keep in contact via this email? I am also (on phone in D.C.) at XXX XXX XXXX

 

I look forward to hearing back from you soonest as I am trying to arrange my near term work schedule and determine what I am able to fit regarding the potential projects I am considering at the moment.

 

Best regards,

 

Nate Thayer

 

Mr. “Wu” responded:

From: Robin Wu ‪<robinwu@spsc.co>

Date: Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 6:23 PM

Subject: 答复:Greetings from Shanghai

To: Nate Thayer <thayernate0007@gmail.com>

 

 

 

Dear Thayer,

 

Thank you for you quick and comprehensive replies. It’s my great honor to talk with you further on the specific issues.

 

First, my company mainly focus 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 nuclear crisis, South China Sea issue etc.

 

Second, the format of this cooperation goes like:

1) I give you the outline of the questions we’re interested in.

2) you help to dig out inside and in-depth information based on those questions.

3) the length of the paper is around 5-7 pages (A4 type).

4) the report is usually done within one or two weeks.

5) the honorarium is generally between 500-1500 bucks (there’ll be extra bonus if the paper is really good).

One important tip here is that I already have several project managers and they will take charge of the public information gathering, which means the analysis you provided will better be based on the reliable sources in US (like SD or NSC etc).

 

Third, my working office is in Lujiazui CBD area in Pudong Shanghai. And right now we haven’t had the overseas office.

 

Last but not the least, currently our major focus in on the US-North Korea talk held in Singapore this January. So I’d like to know if there’s any possibility that you could go through this report. Thanks.

 

Look forward to your positive replies.

 

Best,

 

Robin Wu

President

SPSC”

 

The specific reference to “US-North Korea talk held in Singapore this January” were 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.

 

 

Mr. “Wu” followed up with another message:

from:   Robin Wu <robinwu@spsc.co>

reply-to:         Robin Wu <robinwu@spsc.co>

to:        Nate Thayer <thayernate0007@gmail.com>

date:   Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 2:03 AM

subject:           答复:Greetings from Shanghai

 

Dear Thayer,

 

Hope this mail finds you well. The past two weeks are our traditional Spring Festival and I was with families for some vacation stuff. Sorry for this late update.

 

Here I’d like to know if you’ve received my previous email. Since there will be several projects related to the North Korea issue in the upcoming months, really hope you could set aside some time in joining us. We could offer you very rational honorarium. Thanks.

 

Also I’d like to know if you have any plan to come to Asia (China will be better). If so, we could arrange some potential meet-up and have some further discussion on the cooperations stuff. Thank you.

Best,

Robin Wu

President

SPSC”

 

I contacted one retired U.S. intelligence China specialist source. “Remember those guys from ‘Shanghai’ who wanted me to mine my ‘Washington social contacts’ in the USG on US policy towards the Burma/China pipeline and Spratly Islands? They are back–this time interested in North Korea stuff and this time the letter is from their “President”, one “Robin Wu” from “Shanghai”,” I wrote.

 

“Hi Nate, Are you actually in Shanghai?” he responded.

“No. I am in DC. The letter is from Shanghai, allegedly,” I replied.

“OK. That makes replying much easier.  First off, I am always suspicious of Chinese with only two characters in their names (There are lots of Robin Wu’s).  I’ve found some possible associates–all two character names– associated with the CPAFF (The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries), which is clearly an intel front,” he wrote. “They are certainly upping the ante, in line with your recent publications, so they are refining their pitch to something you may find more attractive.  The end goal, however, has not likely changed.  And as you know, once money gets involved, you are in another ballgame, with a different audience. Be very careful. You do not want to take money. And you do not want to go to Shanghai under any circumstances.”

“That is my take, but I don’t know about this stuff,” I replied. “I particularly liked the ‘set aside some time in joining us’ and ‘We could offer you very rational honorarium’ and the inquiry if I have ‘any plan to come to Asia (China will be better)’ so we can ‘have some further discussion on the cooperations stuff’. I am thinking they think I am an idiot, which annoys me and raises the question whether other people think I am an idiot. Look forward to seeing you Saturday.”

I on passed more new messages to another former CIA career China specialist:

“Hi Nate -What’s your end-game in this? There is little about Wu’s offer that substantiates his claim to be a ‘business.’”

 

“I don’t have any end game on this, really. Mainly, I am intrigued they appear to be rather epic amateurs. Having said that, I don’t have anything beyond a gmail address from them, but I am guessing that hurdle won’t be hard to overcome. There is little question–at least in my mind–that they are not a ‘business’.  I have checked them out pretty thoroughly and they don’t appear on the radar screen of anyone who does this kind of legitimate business on these issues who are based in the region. I have one eye on doing a story on ‘journalist being woo’d by Chinese Intelligence to infiltrate USG’, which certainly appears to be the meat of the latest missive. Mainly, 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.

 

If you think the guys in the white hats would be interested in following up on this, by all means, pass it along. I am all ears. I have been pretty careful not to burn any bridges or step over the boundaries and I don’t think they are tipped off, yet. But that is beyond my pay grade.”

So continued a yearlong process of communicating with Chinese intelligence trying to recruit me to steal U.S. national security secrets in exchange for payment.

 

They also asked that I come meet them in Shanghai “to discuss cooperation.”

 

I had 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.

 

“Nate, Met with a couple of old colleagues and discussed your situation. I gave them a copy of your email and your phone number. I also gave them a rundown on our own longstanding friendship dating back to days in Bangkok. They were very interested and appreciated your dropping a dime. They will send the information back to the head shed and expect that you will be contacted by someone back there. It may take a little while for things to sort out back there as you are dealing with the USG. I suggested that whoever calls you should say they are ‘a friend of John’. Not too complex. There are many ways this thing can go, some of them very interesting. Thanks for writing to me. I will let you know if I hear anything but suspect that I will move out of the picture. Good luck. Suggest you make a thumb drive of all traffic for the people you will be meeting. If I hear anything on my end I will pass it on. Appreciate you’re keeping me in the loop unless you are specifically told not to.”

 

But I still had received no direct contact from the FBI Foreign CI division until the fall of 2015—one year after the Chinese Ministry of State Security first contacted me. The first several formal alerts had slipped through the FBI cracks.

In September 2015, I received this message from my retired CIA interlocutor with the FBI:

“Nate,

Met with a former colleague today and explained that our friends in the white hats have not contacted you.  I also noted that you have continued contact with the people who want to hire you and that you told them you would be going to Singapore.

 

I noted that you don’t want to work for them, but there is a lack of any interest in that happening. I said you are doing a news story on this contact.

 

I said clearly that our meeting today should be documented to show that you have no interest in actually working for them.  My friend noted that our firm couldn’t help you if you get crossways with the feds.  I acknowledged that but said the meeting needs to be reported to his firm and to the white hats and if they don’t want you to meet in Singapore they should say so and you won’t do it.

 

My friends have gone to the well twice on this matter and will go back again to see if they can get some clarity.  I will let you know whatever I hear.  Let me know any developments on your end. I wonder if your issues on the KKK matter (separate stories I was investigating that involved the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan) are affecting the situation with the people who want to hire you. Stay well.”

In October 2015, I received this message:

“Nate, I met with a lady from my old Firm recently and gave her an update on your situation.  She called me this morning to say that she discussed you with a local White Hat who she knows.  The guy is interested to know more and will call me.  I expect to know more next week. Instead of going through Hqs as she tried twice in the past without success, my friend reached out locally which sounds like the right thing to do.  I will know more once I talk to the guy and will let you know what transpires. I assume you are still interested in meeting with the White Hats. Have there been any developments?”

 

I replied: “Great stuff. Of course I am still interested in talking to the white hats. There have been no new developments, save for one friend who contacted XXX XXXX—the former U.S. NK point man for the firm–whose strong advice was I simply back the fuck off. I am not good at backing the fuck off nor do I think it is necessary or appropriate in this case. I remain desirous of making sure the that the right people in the right departments are aware of the contacts made to me from the boys in the Black Hats in Asia, and I remain fully willing to cooperate in whatever guidance they have on how to move forward, and remain willing to not do whatever it is I should not do. I just want to know who the right people are. If they don’t want to talk to me, fine. If they do, better. It has been a year since I first reached out to them. In the meantime, I am moving forward and have sent new commo’s to my contacts in Asia. Let me know if I should or should not do anything. This is all beyond my pay grade. But It is sort of fun. At this point it is unclear who are the good guys. I know who the bad guys are. But there may be tactical allies of bad guys and there appear to be just really dumb guys on both teams.”

In late 2015, I received a telephone call from a 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 was met by a FBI agent who gave me her card, and another, who was an ethnic Chinese man born and raised in the U.S. who did not, but gave me his first name, but not his surname.

I had printed out all the communications between “Frank Hu” and “Robin Wu” and myself and gave them to the two Special Agents of the FBI, and detailed how my due diligence had determined they were intelligence agents of the Chinese and their recruitment efforts. I also detailed—which was my only mission as a journalist—that I intended to write a story on how the Chinese recruit U.S. citizens as spies. I also said 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. The FBI Foreign Counterintelligence agents were very professional, but said little. A few weeks later, they contacted me again and requested another lunch meeting. They confirmed that the people who were contacting me were agents of the Ministry of State Security. “You are correct in who these people are. We have consulted with our superiors and this is where we are: This is important and we think it could be fruitful, but 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, of course, could not 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.

 

 

“I would stay out of China if I were you should you keep following down this road,” said Peter Mattis, a well-respected analyst of the Chinese intelligence infrastructure. “You should assume that the Chinese know you have been in contact with the bureau. Several people who have were later taken aside and interrogated when they visited China and asked why they were talking to the FBI.”

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.

“The target will not realize they are spying until they are in over their head and then it is too late,” said Epoch Times investigative journalist Joshua Philipp. “Then they got you and you didn’t even realize it.”

“Good reporting looks a lot like espionage. There is nothing suspicious about a journalist inquiring about defense secrets in the West,” said Philipp.

 

The same MSS unit that wrapped up Candace Marie Claiborne, 60, of Washington, D.C., an employee of the U.S. 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.

The SSSB is largely unknown outside of the small group of foreign Chinese intelligence analysts who look at Chinese intelligence operations, the SSSB raided the China offices of Australian mining firm Rio Tinto in 2009.

The office director, Stern Hu, came under investigation, because his aggressive approach to investment cost the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises several hundred million dollars.

A year later, the FBI arrested Glenn Duffie Shriver, who applied to work at the State Department and CIA in exchange for $70,000. The SSSB 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, according to his arrest affidavit.

 

The affidavit reveals that the SSSB operates 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 knew the SSSB officers at least since 2007. In 2007, Claiborne was a stationed in Buenos Aires and had been away from China for two years. Her second tour in China was at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai from 2003–05.

At work

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,” reads the affidavit. The affidavit does nothing to describe Co-Conspirator C apart from his SSSB affiliation.

The Chinese intelligence agents that tried to recruit me are the same exact agents that have successfully recruited other Americans in recent high-profile cases, confirm four different U.S. intelligence analysts.

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.

Aside from Mallory who was arrested last week, two other high-profile cases were also the targets of the Shanghai State Security Bureau of the MSS.

A year later, the FBI arrested Glenn Duffie Shriver, who applied to work at the State Department and CIA in exchange for $70,000. The SSSB 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.

The SSSB 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.

 

Co-Conspirator B’s cover is what the affidavit calls a “cut out” or a “co-optee” of the SSSB. The affidavit A “cut-out or co-optee can operate under a variety of covers, posing as diplomats, journalists, academics, or business people, who are tasked with spotting, assessing, targeting, collecting, and running sources.”

“Nate, Here are my impressions about the emails,” wrote Peter Mattis, the Chinese intelligence analyst. Peter Mattis is a fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation, and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army. He is the coauthor of a forthcoming handbook on Chinese intelligence to be published through Naval Institute Press.

“One of the things that I have been struck by about a number of Chinese espionage cases is the emphasis on maintaining a relationship. 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? I did a whois? search on the domain that they used and I noticed that the spsc.co domain is, in fact, available. I’m sure this info already was in your possession or something like it, but interesting… They couldn’t be bothered to spend $15 dollars to claim the domain and stick up a place filler website with contact info and a “we do strategic political risk analysis for corporate clients, blah blah blah.” Is it just me or did they pull language down from your website? These are low risk, low reward operations. If they work, however, then they can really pay off. One of the most valuable things that your work would have done is provide a baseline for unclassified, but otherwise unavailable info. You also would have eventually been asked about your sources and that might have been used for subsequent targeting. I would stay out of China if I were you should you keep following down this road. (Something for the phone) Happy to answer more questions.”

 

Between March 2008 and July 2010, 44 people were convicted by the United States Department of Justice in 26 cases involving espionage on behalf of China, quietly prosecuted on espionage charges, according to the Justice Department, almost all of whom are now in U.S. federal prison.

 

 

 

“In recent years, the Justice Department has handled an increasing number of prosecutions involving sensitive American weapons technology, trade secrets and other restricted information bound for China,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

 

“Some of these cases have involved individuals operating on behalf of the Chinese government or intelligence. Many others have involved private-sector businessmen, scientists, students, or others collecting sensitive U.S. technology or data that is routed to China.”

“Kevin Patrick Mallory, 60, of Leesburg, Virginia, made his initial appearance in federal court today on charges that he transmitted Top Secret and Secret documents to an agent of the People’s Republic of China. According to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, Mallory, travelled to Shanghai in March and April 2017 and met with an individual (PRC1), who he believed was working for the People’s Republic of China Intelligence Service (PRCIS).,” read Department of Justice statement from their Office of Public Affairs on June 22, 2017. ““The conduct alleged in this complaint is serious, and these charges should send a message to anyone who would consider violating the public’s trust and compromising our national security by disclosing classified information.”

“The FBI will continue to investigate those individuals who put our national security at risk through unauthorized disclosures of information.”

 

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 think tanks, 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 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 the 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.”

Senior employees of Washington-based think tanks say that the FBI has alerted them to being targets of Chinese MSS recruitment.

“The FBI asked to brief a few senior (Washington think tank) people who manage junior staff and interns to warn them that China might try to recruit these staff to provide information in exchange for money.  I know at least some of us regularly tell the story to new interns so they’re aware that this problem exists. The FBI briefer said he was going around to think tanks in DC to warn them so they were aware this danger was out there,” said one senior prominent Washington think tank executive who asked his name not be used. “Because I was not the primary Person of Contact for the FBI, I would prefer not to be named. I don’t mind, however, if you want to refer to someone at a prominent DC think tank involved in the FBI briefing telling you about this having happened.  He came from a counter-intelligence unit in the FBI and said he was tasked with reaching out to the 100s of think tanks in DC.”

 

 

In Shanghai in the mid 2000’s, Glenn Duffie 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, Glenn Duffie 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.

 

None of this should be entirely surprising—countries spy on one another, and the US spies on China just as Chinese intelligence does its best to steal secrets in this country.

 

 

Glenn Shriver took $70,000 from Chinese intelligence officers who convinced him to apply for a position as a CIA clandestine officer. Between 2008 and 2011, the U.S. 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.

 

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.”

Shriver asked his Chinese benefactors “What, exactly, do you guys want?” which is exactly what I had asked my new Chinese business associates. The Chinese Ministry of State Security agents told Shriver “If it’s possible, we want you to get us some secrets or classified information” which is exactly what the same Chinese agents told me.

 

In 2004, Shriver met “Amanda” in Shanghai after seeing an advertisement for knowledgeable students to write reports about U.S.-China relations, which was exactly what I was approached to do.

 

Shriver was paid $120 for two reports, according to court documents. I was promised between “$500 and $1500 (more if it is good stuff)”, according to the MSS agents who contacted me.

 

“Only one time was I told that they would like secrets,” Shriver told the judge. Six months after first meeting “Amanda,” Shriver applied for a job with the U.S. State Department, but failed the Foreign Service exam, but the Chinese paid him $10,000 for his efforts. He took the exam again and failed, but the Chinese paid him $20,000 then, too.

Then the Chinese convinced him to apply for a job at the CIA and Shriver asked the Chinese intelligence officers for $40,000. In 2010, Shriver was arrested. “I think I was motivated by greed,” he told the judge when he was sentenced for conspiracy to communicate national defense information to four-years in federal prison.

 

From prison, Shriver 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.”

Comments

  1. Nick says

    Found this interesting, Nate. Started reading your article and wanted to check out some of the other stuffs mentioned (NK News, etc.) to try and see if you are a reputable source. I.e. Your reporting on a NK secret talk in Singapore not widely reported on any regarded MSM outlet.

    This led me to the wiki for NK News, and I was left more perplexed.

    Check out this edit history, I’m sure you’ll get a laugh.

    http://i.imgur.com/gPBOSIB.png

  2. Nick says

    Sorry, let me correct my comment about it not being widely reported on MSM.

    I did not recall the Singapore-event in my memory, so I looked up NK News as I’d never heard of it before to check the veracity of the claims.

    AFAIK however, ex-officials and North Korean senior diplomats do meet in “Track 2” discussions, in some strange grey area, so the claim does sound plausible.

    Forgive my last comment, I would edit if I could.

  3. R says

    Hard to imagine…. but, also, to a certain extent not surprising as from two personal experiences: 1) A Chinese told me recently how surprised they were about how much Americans are patriotic upon observing Independence Day… a parallel could be drawn that from the Chinese mainland perception Americans could be easy to influence… and 2) Another Chinese friend told me once some years ago that he was approached by a woman suggesting that he could turn his failing cafe in Shanghai into a intelligence gathering operation for foreigners in which he would be paid for this service. I thought the offer was made as a joke — cafes fail often in Shanghai — but after reading your article I’m not so sure… (The friend said no and the cafe went under; and he moved to other commercial ventures)

    I’m not into intelligence articles normally, but this was listed in Bill Bishop’s newsletter, and I found it a riveting story nonetheless. Thanks for being brave and sharing.

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