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