How the Chinese try to recruit Americans as spies – and sometimes succeed
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.”