Spy case patterns the Chinese style of espionage
(Page 2 of 2)
This January a federal judge, citing what he felt was prosecutorial misconduct, threw out charges of taking classified documents filed against Katrina Leung, a Chinese-American civic leader in California. Ms. Leung was a paid FBI informant whom prosecutors suspected was also passing information to China.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But former and current counterintelligence officials insist that the collapse of these cases does not mean that they are targeting a nonexistent threat. China is one of the top five intelligence collectors in the US, if not the top one, they say.
And China's methods are different than those used by other nations eager to glean US secrets, say experts. In some ways that makes them more difficult to counter.
Recent cases involving the People's Republic of China (PRC) "are just the tip of the iceberg of an already-large and increasingly capable PRC intelligence effort," concludes a US government Intelligence Threat Handbook, an unclassified manual for security officers produced by an arm of the National Security Agency.
According to this document, Beijing does not favor the classical methods used by other big intelligence services, featuring tight control over a few, deeply buried and valuable agents.
Instead, it employs a vast, decentralized network that employs Chinese students, businesspeople, and delegations in the United States, and targets Americans of Chinese ancestry as possible espionage recruits.
Chinese factories and research institutes eager for US economic or military information often concoct and control their own collection schemes.
Intelligence officials in China may pass along possible contact names to a scientific team traveling to the US, for instance. The Chinese scientists may then make a direct appeal for help - or invite the US contact for a reciprocal visit to China, where they can be tired out with banquets and visits and then swarmed by questioners, in hopes of eliciting an unguarded comment.
Chinese human-intelligence operations "primarily rely on collecting a small amount of information from a large amount of people," says the Intelligence Threat handbook.
The Chinese-American community is the target of an estimated 98 percent of recruitment efforts by China's equivalent of the CIA, the Ministry of State Security, according to the handbook.
Chinese intelligence aims its efforts at Chinese-Americans because it feels it can make an effective approach to them - not because it considers them more vulnerable than other ethnic groups.
The crux of the Chinese approach is to appeal to an individual's desire to help out China in some way. "Whatever the reason, ethnic targeting to arouse feelings of obligation is the single most distinctive feature of PRC intelligence operations," concludes US counterintelligence.
In some ways, the alleged misdeeds of the Mak brothers are not typical of the Chinese approach, according to Mr. Moore, the former FBI China analyst.
The torn-up lists of technologies that the FBI claims to have taken from Chi Mak's garbage would be evidence of more direct control than Chinese agents typically have, says Moore. "Usually what you see is a Chinese-American fellow on this side just making it up as he goes along."
In court FBI agents have struggled to explain why the case against the Maks doesn't include espionage charges. The government says it's not clear the information on the disk or disks allegedly found in Tai Mak's possession is, in fact, classified. It may be sensitive data that are unclassified but banned from export to other countries.
News reports have described information about sensitive weapons that Chi Mak may have been passing to China for years, but the US government has not publicly made such sweeping allegations.
Clearly, however, the FBI has had Chi Mak under surveillance for at least a year, if not longer. Electronic eavesdropping equipment was salted throughout his house. At one point, Chiu said to her husband that the "things" his brother was asking him to take "are certainly against the law," states an FBI affidavit.
Five days later all three were arrested.