Espionage on Campus

I received many nice pens as gifts from my folks when I embarked on my university studies. I reckon pens would be inappropriate in this modern digital age. What about a book, say on how to guard against spies in campus?

And why not? The parents may appreciate it given recent reports about foreign spies in American universities - and my personal encounters. American universities have been infected with foreign spies in the guise of students and researchers who were actually on a mission to steal government secrets and technological know-how for their home countries, the Daily Mail reported recently.

An unclassified FBI report, “Higher Education and National Security: The Targeting of Sensitive, Proprietary, and Classified Information on Campuses of Higher Education” released last year, warned American administrators on how foreign intelligence services use universities for their intelligence and operational needs – the open environment of US colleges is “an ideal place to find recruits, propose and nurture ideas, learn, and even steal research data, or place trainees.”

A US Defense Department 2011 report “Targeting US Technologies” described the battle against foreign collection and espionage on US technology, trade secrets and proprietary information, including “academic solicitation” like requests to review academic papers or study with professors. These attempts jumped eightfold from East Asia, including China, and doubled from the Middle East in 2010 from the year before.

Consider also the case of how Russian spy and Columbia graduate student Lidiya Guryeva was tasked to form “ties with classmates on a daily basis including professors who can help in job search and who will have (or already have) access to secret information” and also seek potential recruits, according to Bloomberg, which added that some US university administrators have approached the CIA for help.

Now, speaking of personal experience with... say Pat, to be discreet - like Pat in the American late-night live television variety show “Saturday Night Live” where nobody ever knows if Pat is a man or woman, Patrick or Patricia.

Let me first set the record straight. Pat was suspected of having been assigned by a foreign intelligence agency to snoop on students from the same home country. There was no proof Pat ever stole any state secrets or technological know-how.

Pat, a PhD philosophy student at my university light years ago, was a well-liked funny person with abundant wit – the scholarly, well-mannered type every mom would love.

Pat was probably a smooth field agent. No one ever suspected anything until casual conversations among schoolmates revealed something in common: every foreign student from the same country had had more than one private meal with Pat.

The long, casual and engaging conversations would usually start off with efforts to find common coordinates from the schools they attended, their childhoods, neighborhoods, interest, hobbies, goals and career aspirations, etc. The chats would gradually progress to more personal matters like how, or rather if, they missed home, their parents, siblings and even current and/or former boy/girlfriends. Political opinions also came up casually.

Nobody ever suspected anything then. Just normal casual exchanges amongst homesick foreign students, or so they thought. Smooth operative? Background checks? Checked. Discreet? Well, yes until...

Pat never missed any opportunities to mingle and know more comrades, such as coffee chats, big and small parties and the regular meetings of campus clubs of all sorts so long as the club members include someone with a passport from the same country. And these networking efforts include meetings of various religious groups - to explore, as the “free-thinker” Pat would claim. A diligent spook combs the entire field? Checked.

Now another interesting thing about Pat: AWOL. Pat was hardly in class or seen around campus, a point once made by Pat's classmates from the philosophy faculty.

The reason is, as I realized, Pat was not only busy checking students in my campus but also others spread across the entire North American continent. Pat would visit, all through the academic year, universities from Vancouver in the west to Prince Edward Island on the far eastern coast of Canada; from Seattle to Boston on the horizontal and Chicago to Austin on the vertical of the US - not forgetting Hawaii.

I recalled Pat once spent the entire night at the apartment of a schoolmate calling up fellow comrades across North America, advising them of upcoming campus visits and scheduling meetings to “catch up.” Phone calls were expensive then. An agent who travels extensively? All expenses paid by agency? Checked.

Poor Pat may have been overworked. I never saw Pat studying or even carrying any books, notes or folders like a regular university student. Maybe philosophy was too easy for a former university lecturer, as Pat claimed, but I finally gave in and asked:

“Don't you ever need to study?”

I regretted – had I exposed an operational flaw of a secret agent?

A few days later, Pat suggested visiting a used bookstore near the campus and bought two boxes of books on various topics - history, philosophy, literature, politics and even architecture. As if to prove a point, Pat patiently briefed me on every author and subject of the books put into the boxes, which could otherwise take more than two dozen bottles of wine. A well-trained, knowledgeable sleuth? Checked.

Then one fine day, Pat just graduated. A doctorate in philosophy with a tenth of the time spent in campus is a remarkable feat. But in two years?

No surprise Pat missed the graduation ceremony. I regretted not checking the graduates list. An officer on short notice for a new assignment? Checked.

Some years later, I learned that Pat had become a professor at a certain university. So I called the cell but Pat kept the dialogue short. Now seriously, I don't know any professor who plays golf, much less during office hours on a weekday in the middle of an academic year.

I received a call from a former varsity mate out of the blue some years later: Pat had appeared in the local newspaper on the obituary page.

Some former university friends gathered for a coffee session, supposedly to remember our lost friend. But strangely no one mentioned Pat.

To this day, I suppose everyone misses Pat. I am also sure everyone believes Pat was a spy. And I am absolutely certain everyone harbors the same thought: how convenient for Pat to “die” this way. Perhaps Pat has taken up a new name and identity, and with several passports just like former CIA agent Jason Bourne in the Bourne Triology movies.

We miss you, Pat. I like to believe you are alive, reading this somewhere and smiling to yourself. Just want to say “Hi and no problem, we understand.”

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Email: A version of this appeared in The Standard of Hong Kong)