Why the CIA Is Increasingly Worried About China's Moles

For decades, Beijing has principally targeted Chinese-Americans as potential spies. Now it has cast a wider net—creating fear and paranoia at Langley. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

Glenn Duffie Shriver looked like an ideal CIA recruit. Gregarious and athletic, the 28-year-old from Michigan had been a good student with strong interests in world affairs and foreign languages since childhood. What made him even more attractive as a prospective CIA employee, however, was that he had studied and worked in China and was fluent in Mandarin.

But when CIA investigators began digging deeper into his experiences in China, they began to suspect that he had been dispatched by Beijing's spymasters. Under questioning during his pre-employment polygraph test in 2010, he grew so nervous that he withdrew his application on the spot and virtually bolted from the room, according to subsequent accounts. Months later, as he was boarding a plane to leave the U.S., he was arrested by the FBI and charged with trying infiltrate the CIA as a mole for China. He was sentenced by a federal court in Virginia to four years in prison.

Today, the Shriver case is still rattling the CIA, according to sources with deep familiarity with the spy agency's China coverage. While Beijing's premier espionage service, the Ministry of State Security, or MSS, had previously focused on penetrating U.S. security by seducing or blackmailing Chinese-Americans, the Shriver case showed a new and daring attempt to recruit students from Norman Rockwell's America.

The arrest on March 28 of a State Department employee, Candace Marie Claiborne, on charges of lying to the FBI about her contacts with Chinese intelligence agents will only add to what one former CIA official calls "paranoia" about Beijing's espionage offensive. "A year or two ago, [the CIA] went through a very big mole scare because very high-level [Chinese] sources were getting wrapped up," a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst tells Newsweek, asking not to be quoted by name on such a sensitive subject. "Once that started to happen, they felt that there was something internal, and that's when they started really clamping down on whom they were hiring."

Former top CIA lawyer Robert Eatinger recalls an intense interest at the agency in uncovering suspected moles for China around the time he was retiring in 2015. "I don't remember whether it was the last one, two or three years that I knew of it," he says. He and other CIA veterans consulted by Newsweek declined to talk more specifically about particular cases.

"The problem with those stories is there's always a rumor," a top former CIA official says. "I think there's always worries that someone's gotten through the system, but I'm not really aware that there is a specific hunt going on at this point." The CIA does not comment on such sensitive matters. Mole hunts are carried out by a very small group of counterintelligence specialists "in large measure because of the dangers to reputations and that sort of thing," says the former CIA official. "It's kept very, very quiet."

But the Shriver case "gave the security folks a big concern about the targeting of American students in China," says Dennis Wilder, the CIA's deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific from 2015 to 2016. And today, "there's a far greater scrutiny of anyone who has spent time in China as a student, particularly on the longer-term programs."

As a result, he says, the CIA's recruitment of some of its best-qualified applicants has stalled. And that has damaged the agency's ability to understand what's going on inside China. When it shunts applicants who have traveled widely in the country, the CIA h as to train more of its analysts on China from scratch, starting with language courses, adds Wilder, who served as the top Asia expert in the George W. Bush White House. It can take a year of intensive daily classes to master more than rudimentary Mandarin or Cantonese, just two of the dozen main tongues on the mainland, many of which are mutually unintelligible.

CIA spokesman Dean Boyd concedes that "those applicants whose associations and travels pose elevated risks receive elevated scrutiny." But he says the CIA "has hired and continues to hire such individuals if they meet our security standards."

That is a truism, according to other top former intelligence officials: The CIA continues to hire applicants who've spent time in China—at least those who've withstood a security check that can take two years. But the critics stand by their assertions that the agency's heightened security sensitivity to applicants with multiple visits to China has also cost it high-quality talent. "If you have that on your background, your résumé is just tossed in the trash, because they are so paranoid about MSS penetration and co-opting students," a former senior CIA intelligence analyst tells Newsweek on condition of anonymity.

A still from an FBI video about Glenn Duffie Shriver's recruitment by the MSS. FBI

American Seduction

For decades, China's intelligence agency, the MSS, primarily targeted Chinese-Americans, especially those working in the defense and intelligence agencies or in sensitive American industries, for recruitment. (That has led the FBI, some critics say, to racially profile Chinese-Americans, particularly academics and scientists who do business with China, as espionage suspects.)

The Shriver case alarmed agency security officials because it signaled a departure from the recruiting norm of the MSS. And there have been additional efforts by Chinese intelligence to infiltrate the CIA with non-Asians, Wilder and others say. According to Larry Pfeiffer, who served as chief of staff to CIA Director Michael Hayden from 2006 to 2009, "Your natural assumption is that he's not the only one." Indeed, the CIA's Office of Security "conducts studies" after a breach, he says, to determine the chances that others with a similar profile "got through the wickets." In Shriver's case, the likelihood was that "others could have been recruited."

The MSS began widening its net after a high-level debate in the politburo under Hu Jintao, China's president from 2002 to 2012, according to well-informed sources. Beijing's leading economics and financial officials argued that China should avoid further antagonizing the United States, its top trading partner. But Beijing's intelligence and military officials won the debate with arguments that China had arrived as a superpower and should pursue a more muscular campaign against the U.S. Its 2014 cyber theft of some 18 million U.S. government personnel files was just one prong of the escalation. Its militarization of contested South China Sea atolls and islands was another. Expanding its espionage offensive into the seduction of non-Chinese Americans was yet another.

"The big change that has occurred in recent years is that all Americans are now a target, much more than ever before," says Wilder, now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues. "Their security service, their officers are more sophisticated on the West now. They've got better language skills. They've got these opportunities with all these students and others coming to China, so they can do the recruitment on home ground."

Befuddled and Bamboozled

In 2014, the FBI posted a video dramatization of Shriver's recruitment by the MSS on its website. Produced as a warning to young Americans in China, "Game of Pawns" also comes off as a triumph of U.S. spy catchers.

But Harry "Skip" Brandon, a former FBI deputy assistant director for counterintelligence, suggested that the MSS reaped a reward even from Shriver's failure. "They could've just been trying to bamboozle us," says Brandon, who battled Cuban intelligence for years. During the Cold War, he recalled, the Soviet KGB convinced the CIA's legendary counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, that they had riddled the CIA with spies. Angleton became so paranoid, according to many accounts through the years, that he virtually paralyzed the CIA's recruitment of Russian agents. "While the Chinese likely did not plant Shriver as someone to be caught and trigger paranoia at the CIA," Brandon says, "it's possible they now see a benefit" from creating suspicion in the agency about applicants with sterling China backgrounds and language skills.

And that suspicion has spread to job seekers with similar experiences in or family ties to places like Iran, Russia, Syria, Pakistan and the onetime Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe, say former CIA officials. "We had a regular meeting with the head of counterintelligence, and we never looked forward to that," says Pfeiffer. "It was all doom and gloom…because of the number of cases that they were working that were of significant concern."

Or, as the old joke goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get you.

Shriver says as much in a coda to "Game of Pawns." "Recruitment's going on," he says from his jail cell, in a warning to other young students headed to China. "Don't fool yourself. The recruitment is active, and the target is young people: Throw lots of money at them, see what happens."