America's New Threat: China's Spies

Saturday, 07 May 2011 12:00 PM

 

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — The young man stood before the judge, his usually neatly trimmed hair now long enough to brush the collar of his prison jumpsuit. Glenn Duffie Shriver had confessed his transgressions and was here, in a federal courtroom with his mother watching, to receive his sentence and to try, somehow, to explain it all.

When the time came for him to address the court, he spoke of the many dreams he'd had to work on behalf of his country.

"Mine was to be a life of service," he said. "I could have been very valuable. That was originally my plan."

___

EDITOR'S NOTE — China, ever more powerful, has become a major instigator of espionage in the United States. First of a two-part series on Beijing's efforts, many successful, to steal American secrets and technology.

___

He had been a seemingly all-American, clean-cut guy: No criminal record. Engaged to be married. A job teaching English overseas. In letters to the judge, loved ones described the 29-year-old Midwesterner as honest and caring — a good citizen. His fiancee called him "Mr. Patriot."

Such descriptions make the one that culminated in the courtroom all the more baffling: Glenn Shriver was also a spy recruit for China. He took $70,000 from individuals he knew to be Chinese intelligence officers to try to land a job with a U.S. government agency — first the State Department and later the CIA.

And Shriver is just one of at least 57 defendants in federal prosecutions since 2008 charging espionage conspiracies with China or efforts to pass classified information, sensitive technology or trade secrets to intelligence operatives, state-sponsored entities, private individuals or businesses in China, according to an Associated Press review of U.S. Justice Department cases.

Of those, nine are awaiting trial, and two are considered fugitives. The other defendants have been convicted, though some are yet to be sentenced.

Most of these prosecutions have received little public attention — especially compared with the headline splash that followed last summer's arrest of 10 Russian "sleeper agents" who'd been living in suburban America for more than a decade but, according to Attorney General Eric Holder, passed no secrets.

Contrast that with this snapshot:

—In Honolulu, a former B-2 bomber engineer and one-time professor at Purdue gets 32 years in prison for working with the Chinese to develop a vital part for a cruise missile in a case that a high-ranking Justice Department official said resulted in the leak of "some of our country's most sensitive weapons-related designs."

—In Boston, a Harvard-educated businessman is sent to prison, along with his ex-wife, for conspiring for a decade to illegally export parts used in military radar and electronic warfare systems to research institutes that manufacture items for the Chinese military. The Department of Defense concluded the illegal exports "represented a serious threat to U.S. national and regional defense security interests."

—In Los Angeles, a man goes to jail for selling Raytheon-manufactured thermal imaging cameras to a buyer in Shanghai whose company develops infrared technology. The cameras are supposed to be restricted for export to China because of "their potential use in a wide variety of military and civilian applications," according to court documents.

—And in Alexandra, Va., there is Shriver, who told the judge quite simply: "Somewhere along the way, I climbed into bed with the wrong people."

All five of these defendants were sentenced over just an 11-day span earlier this year.

In Shriver's case, when once he asked his Chinese handlers — "What, exactly, do you guys want?" — the response, as detailed in court documents, was straightforward.

"If it's possible," they told him, "we want you to get us some secrets or classified information."

Despite denials from Beijing, counterintelligence experts say the cases reveal the Chinese as among the most active espionage offenders in America today, paying more money and going to greater lengths to glean whatever information they can from the United States.

___

Just after the New Year, at an airfield in Chengdu, the Chinese military unveiled its first prototype stealth fighter jet: A radar-eluding plane called the J-20, which made its maiden test flight even as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing on a rare visit.

If most Americans paid little attention, U.S. defense analysts were watching closely. And they were caught a bit off-guard.

Gates would later acknowledge that the flight came six months to a year before intelligence estimated it might happen.

So how did the Chinese do it? Was it reverse-engineering from parts taken after an American aircraft was shot down over Serbia in 1999, as some Balkan military officials alleged in interviews with The Associated Press?

Or was some of the technological know-how obtained through a U.S. engineer who spent several years working illegally to help the Chinese develop stealth technology?

A federal prosecutor raised the possibility of a link between the activities of Noshir Gowadia, once a key engineer on America's B-2 bomber program, and the faster-than-expected development of Chinese stealth aircraft designs. The comments came just before Gowadia was sentenced to prison in a Honolulu court in January on espionage charges. He was convicted of 14 counts, including communicating national defense information to aid a foreign nation and violating the Arms Export Control Act.

"China aggressively seeks U.S. defense technologies, and the People's Liberation Army are now shown to have been actively working on stealth aircraft designs, most certainly during Gowadia's visits there," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson wrote in a court filing, noting Gowadia worked in and with China for two years developing a stealth engine nozzle design.

In an interview, Sorenson said he couldn't comment on any evidence of a link but added that "when an expert of that quality lands on your shores, and you're interested in developing stealth technologies ... don't you think it's reasonable to assume that to some degree he's assisting them in overall development? That is the kind of stakes we talk about when we talk about the transfer of these U.S.-born military technologies."

For years, U.S. counterintelligence experts have cited a growing espionage threat from China, the product of an ever-more competitive world in which technology is as vital as political intelligence — but a sign, too, of China's increasing prosperity, persistence and patience.

Recent cases reveal not only a high level of activity but also signs of changing tactics and emboldened efforts. In one case, a convicted spy managed to convince not one but two U.S. government officials to pass him secret information, telling them it was going to Taiwan when he instead passed it to a Chinese official.

The recruitment of more non-Chinese, such as Shriver and Gowadia (an India-born, naturalized U.S. citizen), also represents a shift, said Larry Wortzel, a former Army intelligence officer who serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In the past, said Wortzel, China preferred to deal with those "assessed as sympathetic to China or with ethnic Chinese."

And then there are the so-called "espionage entrepreneurs," motivated simply by money.

When asked about the recent cases, the Chinese Foreign Ministry questioned the statistics, responding in a faxed statement: "To speak of the Chinese side's so-called 'espionage activities' in the United States is pure nonsense with ulterior motives."

However, Joel Brenner, who served as the U.S. National Counterintelligence Executive from 2006 to 2009, said: "The Chinese espionage threat has been relentless recently ... we've never seen anything like it. Some of it's public. Some of it's private. And some of it lies in that ambiguous area in between."

Today's "agents" are professors and engineers, businessmen exporting legitimate products while also shipping restricted technology and munitions, criminal capitalists who see only dollar signs. While some may be acting at the direction of a government handler, others supply information to firms for either private enterprise or state-sponsored research — or both.

Driving all of this, U.S. officials said, are China's desire to develop a modernized military and its burgeoning wealth; last year China surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy, behind only the United States.

"They have more money to pay for things," said Steve Pelak, a deputy chief of the Justice Department's counterespionage section who points to the amounts given to Shriver before he was ever in a position to access, much less pass, secrets.

Still more money is going to private firms to help develop and build China's military technology, sometimes through parts obtained illegally from U.S. manufacturers.

Indeed most of the Justice Department cases reviewed by the AP involve the illegal export of restricted defense-related parts or so-called "dual-use" technology, which can have commercial or military applications. These are items such as integrated circuits for radar systems, high-power amplifiers designed for use in early-warning radar and missile target acquisition systems, and military grade night-vision technology.

But that only scratches the surface. Other cases involve the theft of trade secrets by individuals once employed at major U.S. corporations, including Boeing, Motorola and Dow. In some instances, the secrets were computer source codes or, in cases still awaiting trial, related to the development of organic pesticides and telephone communications technology.

Stolen information about the space shuttle and technical data about the capabilities of the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines have also been passed along, as has simulation software used to help train fighter pilots.

While export cases and economic espionage comprise most of the China-related intelligence prosecutions in recent years, there have been a few notable instances of more traditional espionage — among them the Shriver case and that of Tai Shen Kuo, a Louisiana businessman born in Taiwan who obtained information from two federal government employees that he passed to China.

It all fits into what some experts call China's "vacuum cleaner" approach to information-collection: Catch whatever you can.

"It's a little like ... the cancer that you don't know your body has. You don't know that you're in trouble until it manifests itself in ways that really, really hurt you," said Michelle Van Cleave, another former National Counterintelligence Executive who served under President George W. Bush.

She points to revelations that surfaced throughout the 1990s regarding China's procurement of U.S. nuclear secrets. The public controversy came to a head in 1999, when a select congressional committee was named to investigate Chinese espionage and security concerns at U.S. weapons labs.

Then came the government's bungled handling of Wen Ho Lee, the former scientist once identified as the focus of a probe into the theft of nuclear secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory who wound up pleading guilty to a single count of downloading sensitive material.

Intelligence assessments later concluded that China's successful nuclear espionage effort dated back to at least the late 1970s, and reports blamed everything from foreign visitor and scientific exchange programs to espionage on the part of scientists such as Peter Lee, another Los Alamos researcher who did share classified information with Chinese scientists.

But as Van Cleave points out: The exact methods used to acquire those secrets may never be known.

"We know they have them," she said. "We just don't know how they got them."

Today, with ever more cases being prosecuted, we do know more — not only about what's being pursued, but how and why.

___

"If you have customers in mainland China, please let us know if we could be of any help. In China, it seems impossible for most companies to buy directly from US. We can act as middleman for you."

It was 1996 and Zhen Zhou "Alex" Wu, a one-time schoolteacher in his native China who later studied at Harvard, was e-mailing a firm to pitch his new business: A company dedicated to selling electronics components to Chinese customers. Based in Shenzhen, China, the company, Chitron, opened a single U.S. office in Waltham, Mass., to acquire and ship desired technology.

The Massachusetts firm, federal authorities now say, was merely a front to facilitate the export of defense technology from U.S. manufacturers to Chinese military-related institutes. And Wu now sits in a federal prison after being sentenced in January to eight years for conspiring to illegally export restricted technologies.

According to the Department of Defense, the exported items are "vital for Chinese military electronic warfare, military radar, fire control, military guidance and control equipment, and satellite communications." Also included: parts "that the People's Liberation Army actively seeks to acquire."

The use of front companies, or private firms that may also do legitimate business, is a common way that China seeks information, said Pelak, who in 2007 was appointed the Justice Department's first national export control coordinator, focusing on illegal export of munitions and sensitive technology. Prosecutions have since gone up, and today two-thirds of federal illegal export cases involve either China or Iran.

"Those private firms, in China and operating elsewhere, they're paid money to do this and they have great incentive to be doing it," said Pelak.

Take the case of William Chi-Wai Tsu, a naturalized U.S. citizen and electrical engineer serving a three-year prison sentence for illegally shipping several hundred thumbnail-size integrated circuits to a Beijing company called Dimagit Science & Technology. Investigators said the circuits have a variety of potential applications, including use in sophisticated communications and military radar systems.

Dimagit's catalog, according to court records, displayed images of Chinese military craft and promised: "We unswervingly take providing the motherland with safe, reliable and advanced electronic technical support to revitalize the national defense industry as our mission. Ride the wind and cleave the waves, and set sail to cross the sea."

Among Dimagit's clients: a research institute affiliated with the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

Court records reviewed by the AP describe how Tsu went about acquiring restricted parts: He created a fictitious company called Cheerway Trading and used the California address of a friend for shipping. He then provided false end-user statements to American electronics distributors, promising that the parts he sought were not for export but for domestic use — specifically a project with Cisco Systems. If a distributor pressed Tsu, he would claim that nondisclosure agreements prevented him from providing more detail.

Similar tactics were used in a case still awaiting sentencing in Seattle. Lian Yang, a former software engineer at Microsoft, pleaded guilty in late March to attempting to buy restricted technology for a "partner" in China — specifically 300 radiation-hardened programmable semiconductor devices that are used in satellites.

Yang told a confidential FBI source that he had old school friends in China who'd made money importing electronic components from the United States. He suggested creating a fake U.S. company to list as the end-user for parts that would, in actuality, be exported to China.

"Say we need it (the parts) for R and D," he said, meaning research and development, further suggesting that the informant be listed as the company contact because that individual had a non-Chinese name. "And I will be the secret shareholder," said a laughing Yang, according to a court affidavit.

Yang was arrested last Dec. 3 after he handed $20,000 to undercover agents in exchange for five of the semiconductor devices. He later confessed that he intended to drive to Canada and then fly to China to deliver the parts himself. His sentencing is set for June 30.

"Boiled down to its essence, the defendant's offense amounted to a form of espionage on behalf of the People's Republic of China," prosecutors argued in court papers.

However, some defense attorneys counter that these export cases aren't espionage at all or even deliberate attempts to circumvent U.S. laws — but rather an outgrowth of confusing policies and, perhaps, overzealous prosecutors.

In the Chitron case, appeals lawyers for Alex Wu insist U.S. export regulations don't make clear enough what can and cannot be legally exported.

"Wu and others at his firm were not equipped and did not have the training needed to understand this country's extremely complicated export control laws," said his lawyer, Michael Schneider.

Stephanie Siegmann, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, responded that evidence clearly showed that Wu did understand the export restrictions. One spreadsheet found on his computer was titled, "GP (Gross Profit) for USA Restricted Military Parts." In e-mails he repeatedly instructed an employee, "Do not say you export parts. Just say you are broker."

To get around export laws, court documents said, Chitron workers identified defense-related parts as "electronics components" classified as "No License Required" and falsely listed freight forwarders in Hong Kong (where U.S. export policies are more lenient) as the end-user.

Among the parts exported: phase shifters used in military radar systems.

"With such equipment," the Department of Defense's Defense Technology Security Administration concluded, "China could defeat U.S. weapon systems."

___

Earlier this year, retired FBI agent I.C. Smith gave a speech called "China's Mole" at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It was about a man who landed a job with the Central Intelligence Agency and later turned out to be a spy for China.

As Smith told a rapt audience: "The intelligence community had been penetrated."

He was referring to one of the most damaging Chinese espionage cases of all time: the infiltration of Larry Chin, a naturalized U.S. citizen who in 1986 admitted to spying for China during his almost three decades with the CIA. As a former Chinese counterintelligence supervisor, Smith helped investigate Chin, who later committed suicide.

Smith was stunned to learn of the 5½-year recruitment of Glenn Shriver and China's "run at the front door" of America's pre-eminent intelligence agency.

"The Chinese," Smith said, "still have the capacity to surprise."

How did they do it in Shriver's case? Standing before a federal judge on a blustery day in January, Shriver tried to explain how he went down the path to betrayal.

"It started out fairly innocuous," he recalled. During a college study-abroad program in Shanghai, he was taken with Chinese culture and became proficient in Mandarin. After graduating from Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2004, he returned to China to look for work.

Shriver was just 22 years old when, in October 2004, he first met a woman in Shanghai who would introduce him to the Chinese intelligence officers who persuaded him to consider turning against his own country. According to court documents, he'd responded to an English-language ad looking for scholars of East Asian studies to write political papers.

He met several times with a woman called "Amanda," delivered to her a paper about U.S.-China relations regarding North Korea and Taiwan, and was paid $120.

She later asked Shriver if he'd be interested in meeting some other people — two men he came to know as "Mr. Wu" and "Mr. Tang." Over the next several years, they would meet at least 20 times.

As outlined in court documents and Shriver's own statements, the conversations, at first, focused on developing a "friendship." The men asked Shriver what type of work he was interested in and said that if he planned on seeking a job with a U.S. government agency, "we can be close friends." Had he ever thought about working for the U.S. State Department or, perhaps, the CIA? "That would be pretty good," they told him.

"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 as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department. Though he failed the foreign service exam, the intelligence officers paid him $10,000. A year later, in April 2006, he took the exam a second time but again failed. He was nevertheless paid $20,000.

Then, in June 2007, Shriver applied for a position in the clandestine branch of the CIA. A few months later, he asked the Chinese intelligence officers for $40,000 for his efforts.

During all this time, friends and family — Shriver's mother, especially — thought he was just trying to figure out what to do with his life. He moved for a while to Los Angeles, and talked about becoming a police officer or joining the Peace Corps. Eventually he returned overseas, this time to Korea, where he taught English and got engaged to a girl named Yumi.

No one knew he was continuing to communicate with his Chinese handler, "Amanda."

In June 2010, Shriver underwent a series of final security screening interviews at the CIA in Virginia, during which he lied in response to questions about any previous affiliation with foreign intelligence officers. A week later, he was arrested — U.S. officials wouldn't disclose what led them to him — and his clandestine life unraveled.

"Nobody knew. Nobody," said his mother, Karen Chavez. "He was a good kid. Worked, earned money, was respectful. ... I don't know what he was thinking."

The closest her son came to an explanation was when he told the sentencing judge: "I think I was motivated by greed."

In a telephone interview from prison in April, Shriver tried to expand on that.

"When you're 23 years old living in a very fun city, you almost get addicted to money and you just kind of have it on tap," he told the AP. "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."

Even now he wonders aloud: "What, exactly, did I do that was so illegal?"

Shriver pleaded guilty to conspiracy to communicate national defense information and is serving a four-year prison term.

It's true that he was, after all, never in a position to actually do any spying. No harm done? That may depend on how you look at it.

"This case shows an aggressive attempt by (China) to recruit an American citizen and attempt to place him in one of the nation's premier intelligence agencies," said Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office has handled a number of China-related intelligence cases.

"Foreign intelligence services are watching," he said, "and they're looking for any weakness they can identify and exploit."

___(equals)

Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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