How the Chinese try to recruit Americans as spies – and sometimes succeed
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.
“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 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, another source told me.
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.
“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,”
“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.