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The friendly Mr Wu

The friendly Mr Wu

The weakest link in America’s national security may not be foreign technology but its own people. Mara Hvistendahl traces the story of the single mother who sold out to China

The weakest link in America’s national security may not be foreign technology but its own people. Mara Hvistendahl traces the story of the single mother who sold out to China

Mara Hvistendahl | April/May 2020

When Candace Claiborne arrived in Beijing in November 2009 to work for the US State Department, her employer was already on edge. The American embassy had just moved from a building at the heart of the city’s diplomatic district to a ten-acre walled compound farther from the centre, a $434m fortress that projected both power and fear. The complex featured shatterproof glass, multiple checkpoints and a moat. To prevent Chinese agents from bugging offices, whole sections of the building had been shipped in from America, a tactic used previously when several floors of the US embassy in Moscow had to be razed following a breach in the 1980s. Even with all the safeguards, it turned out that two American construction workers had passed details about the building to China’s intelligence services. The news rattled policymakers in Washington, DC, who were watching China’s rapid economic and political rise with trepidation. The work environment that Claiborne would inhabit for the next three years included frequent security briefings and warnings about the cunning of China’s intelligence services. “I always tell the men, ‘Go look in the mirror. No beautiful woman, attractive woman, goes up to 50-year-old men,’” said one State Department official.

Though the embassy’s security staff had much to worry about, Claiborne was not an obvious source of concern. A 53-year-old mother of four grown children, Claiborne had the poise and manner of someone used to disciplined work. As a young woman she had dreamed of becoming a ballerina, and worked toward this goal with such dedication that she was admitted to the prestigious Washington School of Ballet. She came from a family committed to service – one brother went into the air force and another into the FBI – but Claiborne decided to follow her dream, and packed up her leotards to move to New York. She had some small victories, but the dance world was cut-throat and sustained success eluded her. After an ill-fated marriage, Claiborne ended up following her siblings into the family business. She became one of the hundreds of unlauded but vital administrators trained by the State Department to keep diplomats’ calendars, prepare agendas for meetings and take notes. Claiborne worked in the part of the embassy that handled classified information, and had top-secret security clearance.

She had lived in Beijing on an earlier tour, following it up with a posting to Shanghai. Normally, the State Department caps employees at two tours in a single country and additional stints require a special waiver. The department’s intelligence officers worry that if a person spends too long in one place, he or she might adopt a casual attitude toward potential security threats. But it was hard to persuade people to go to China, and Claiborne, who didn’t have so much as a parking ticket to her name, passed her security reviews easily. She did have one glaring vulnerability, however, which the State Department apparently overlooked.

As she prepared for her move back to Beijing, Claiborne was worried about Jamal, a pseudonym used here for a man described in court documents only as “Co-Conspirator A”. Excerpts from their communications make it clear that Claiborne and Jamal were close. He lived with her at times and often depended on her for money. Their messages and phone calls hint at a relationship marked by moments of petulance and immaturity on one side, and indulgence and anxiety on the other. In “Chinese Communist Espionage”, a book published last year, Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil write that Co-Conspirator A is Claiborne’s son. (Claiborne did not respond to an interview request sent to her prison. Her lawyer declined to be interviewed about the case and did not reply to an invitation to comment on Claiborne’s behalf. Jamal did not respond to a request for an interview or comment on the story.)

Jamal had recently graduated from Salisbury University in Maryland and was living in Washington, DC, doing a string of entry-level jobs. A skilled painter, he wanted to become a fashion designer but as court documents later revealed, he had debts from university and no money to pay for further study. Claiborne was also financially stretched. But she saw a solution.

Jamal had accompanied Claiborne on her first tour of Beijing, enrolling at an international high school. He had enjoyed living in China, and he and Claiborne had befriended a number of local Chinese. State Department employees are required to report all recurring contacts with foreign nationals, and few of them manage to make lasting friendships with locals. It is unclear how Claiborne first met a middle-aged man with babyish cheeks and a slight paunch referred to here as Mr Wu (court records withhold his real name). Mr Wu owned an import-export company and spa in Shanghai. There is no indication that he and Claiborne were romantically involved, but they were familiar enough for Claiborne to write to him before her third tour in Beijing asking whether Jamal might be able to continue his studies in China: “He needs a place to stay and he needs possible airfare…any suggestions?”

We don’t know exactly what Claiborne intended by her request. She may have been asking for an introduction to a workplace or a school, rather than cash. In any case, Mr Wu replied saying he would help. As Claiborne set herself up in Beijing, Mr Wu explored various options for Jamal, who was still in America, to study or work in China. When Jamal wanted beads a few months later, Mr Wu sent them to him. Mr Wu was so helpful that, over time, Claiborne became ever more dependent on him. Eventually his real purpose would be uncovered by American investigators: Mr Wu was a Chinese government spy.

Media coverage has recently homed in on the possibility that China’s advanced software could be exported around the world, potentially giving the Chinese state back doors into foreign telecommunications networks. But the Claiborne case illustrates that threats to America’s security can take far humbler forms. When her case came before a judge in 2017, it hit the headlines for a few days and was then quickly forgotten. She was ultimately convicted of defrauding the American government, a relatively light offence compared with some of the more attention-grabbing cases involving Chinese espionage. But intelligence experts in America viewed Claiborne’s case with alarm. “What it illustrates is that the Chinese intelligence services will dedicate years and significant resources to recruit even an office-management specialist,” said Ryan Gaynor, a supervisory special agent in the FBI, who investigated Claiborne’s case.

Claiborne left an extensive trail of communications with her Chinese contacts and her story offers unusually detailed insights into the patience and guile of Chinese intelligence services, challenging received wisdom about Chinese espionage. At the heart of the case is a critical question: how did an ordinary, hard-working woman sent to do public service abroad end up in the thrall of an enemy agent?

Claiborne grew up in Maryland, in a loving African-American family, the youngest of seven children. When she eventually relinquished her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina, she turned in a different direction: she married a devout Muslim, converted to Islam and had four children. Friends know little about this period of her life. One said that Claiborne settled with her then-husband in New York state in a community of members of the Nation of Islam, an African-American religious organisation.

When the marriage ended some years later, her exit was hurried and undignified. She stuffed her belongings into bin bags and moved to Baltimore. “She called our parents and asked if she could come home to start her life over,” her brother Kevin wrote in a letter to the court. From a world of tutus and pointe shoes, he said, she would “begin reconstructing a life with no appreciable job skills, no work experience, no professional education”.

She got a break when she was offered a low-level job with the US Comptroller of the Currency, a banking watchdog. She eventually moved to Washington, DC, and bought a duplex in a middle-class area near Howard University. A pillar of her community, Claiborne babysat for family members, organised outings to museums and volunteered to feed the homeless. Only rarely, at tai chi or yoga classes, did she devote time to herself.

The family home was sparse but orderly and stable. “There was very little comfortable furniture but there was a long study table and a computer for use by the children,” a former US civil servant who mentored one of her sons wrote in a letter to the court. Ensuring a good education for her children became Claiborne’s new dream, according to her brother, and she pursued it with the same dedication she had shown as a ballet dancer, scouring the internet for cheap or free online courses. But sending her children to college would require real money. Her first shot at getting it came in 1999, with a steady job at the State Department.

The State Department has a famously competitive entry process for foreign-service officers. Administrative jobs are less prestigious but dependable. Staff change posts every two to three years – housing and travel allowances make the frequent moves worthwhile. To boost her salary and save up for her children’s education, Claiborne volunteered for hardship postings: jobs in countries where conditions were tough, that pay an additional 15-35%. Typically, employees do one or two before requesting less arduous locations. Claiborne would go on to do five in a row, including Baghdad.

The first of these was in Beijing, which qualified as a hardship station because the Chinese government was less than friendly and pollutants gave the air the consistency of pea soup. Claiborne moved there in 2000, following it up with a post in Shanghai in 2003. At some point during these tours she met Mr Wu, who spoke good English, and by 2007 they were in regular email contact.

China is governed by a network of complex exchanges in which favours are tendered as currency, and Westerners living there frequently encounter businesspeople who offer unsolicited assistance. “As a foreigner in China, I was often treated to generous opportunities and left wondering what motivated the generosity,” said Sean Dahlen, who taught Claiborne yoga in China and struck up a friendship with her. “More often than not, it was harmless expressions of friendship. Sometimes it was clear later that they wanted something in return.” He recalled that Claiborne had a “tangible” kindness.

There is no evidence in the court papers that Mr Wu asked Claiborne for anything during the early years of their friendship. But if she ever thought that he was merely a benevolent businessman, it would have been clear to her by 2011 that there was more to the story. According to the court papers, in April of that year, Claiborne received a transfer for $2,480 from a Hong Kong company called Delta Shipping Co Ltd, along with a note saying the money was for Jamal. She didn’t report it. The following month, Chinese officials flew to America to meet Joe Biden, the vice-president, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, for the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a series of high-level meetings between the two countries. After the summit, Mr Wu asked Claiborne for the State Department’s internal assessment of the dialogue. In particular, he wanted to know what the United States might do if China didn’t stick to the agreed timetable for revaluing the yuan.

Claiborne sent him a response with general information, some apparently drawn from public sources. “Was the stuff I sent useful?” she later asked Mr Wu by email.

“It is useful but it is also on the internet,” he responded dryly. “What they are looking for is what they cannot find on the internet.”

This was a crucial turning point, said Robert David Booth, a former deputy-director of counterintelligence for the State Department and author of “State Department Counterintelligence: Leaks, Spies, and Lies”. “The light had to go on,” he said. “I don’t care how naive she was and what she was trying to do. She finally had to stop deluding herself.”

The incident did apparently spook her. When Mr Wu next wrote to Claiborne asking if she had anything else for him, she sent him away. “To tell you the truth, I really don’t want to spend time on this kind of stuff,” she wrote. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the time or the energy.”

Mr Wu had plenty of time to devote to the relationship, however. He was what intelligence experts call a “cutout” an operative with a credible cover working for China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). Based in Beijing with bureaus throughout the country, the MSS is a cross between the FBI and the CIA, dealing with international intelligence as well as domestic security. Over the preceding years, the MSS had shown its prowess, recruiting assets through imaginative campaigns and staging dramatic cyber-attacks.

During the cold war, Western spies fretted over the ingenuity and ruthlessness of their KGB adversaries, but tended to downplay China’s intelligence capabilities. If there was a threat, it was said to come from the sheer number of people, primarily ethnic Chinese, that the Chinese Communist Party could harness to work in intelligence operations – what was called a “thousand grains of sand” or “vacuum cleaner” approach to spying. This revealed as much about Western assumptions and prejudices as it did about China’s tactics. In truth, Chinese intelligence services have long used approaches both creative and classic to turn agents or siphon off classified information.

A pivotal case came in 2003, when a Japanese code clerk in Japan’s Shanghai consulate had an affair with a local woman who worked at a karaoke bar. The Shanghai branch of the MSS used the relationship to push the man into giving up personal information on his colleagues, as well as the schedule for taking diplomatic pouches to Tokyo. The encounter culminated in a single desperate moment. Alone in the consulate, the code clerk hung himself.

In 2004 the Shanghai branch of the MSS recruited an American graduate, Glenn Duffie Shriver, using a novel ruse: a call for essays on US-China relations. Officers told Shriver, who was living in Shanghai, that he’d written the winning essay. They then groomed him to join the State Department, paying him $70,000 for his loyalty. Shriver flunked the foreign-service exam, and by the time he applied to the CIA, American operatives were on to him. But the incident alarmed the overseas intelligence community because of the sheer time and resources China’s spy services were willing to commit to a single asset who might not even end up doing a useful job. “The MSS is as patient and good as any service I’ve ever dealt with,” said Booth.

And so it was with Claiborne. Mr Wu, who also worked for the Shanghai branch of the MSS, pushed Claiborne only lightly when she dodged his requests for inside information. Perhaps he calculated that her concerns about Jamal would send her calling again soon. Two months after saying she didn’t have time to help, Claiborne had lunch with Mr Wu. Two days later, she sent what seems to have been a follow-up request for funds.

“I feel bad about asking for money,” she wrote to him. “You are always helping me.” She added that she would try to get some more details about sentiment in her office on the value of the yuan.

“I will help your kids, and also you, to make money in China,” he said, an assurance later read out in court.

“Sounds good,” she replied. Two days later, he wired her $580.

Jamal moved in with Claiborne in Beijing in January 2012 as she was entering the third year of her third tour. The move increased her concern about being dependent on Mr Wu. Soon after, she had a bad dream. “I really don’t want my neck or your neck in a noose,” she told Jamal. But her involvement with the MSS would only deepen with the young man in China.

In February Claiborne looked into whether Jamal could go to Raffles Design Institute in Shanghai. A three-year degree cost 301,500 yuan ($48,000), she told Jamal, then followed up with another message warning him that she didn’t want to accept any more handouts. “While I want you to go to school to fulfil your dream, I would like for you to enter the school on your own accord,” she wrote. She asked him not to send a “blast email” to Mr Wu.

Jamal was annoyed. “Stop worrying about owing Mr Wu,” he wrote back. He told Claiborne that he intended to use all the connections he had. “It takes support to push through to success.” Then he did exactly the thing that she had asked him not to: he emailed Mr Wu and told him everything. “One moment she gives you the green light to help me,” he complained. “The next moment, she doesn’t want you to move forward with helping me.” He said that he would do what he liked, no matter what Claiborne said. “I feel as a man that it is important to develop a relationship with you apart from her because you are extending your hand to help me.”

The Chinese agent replied that he would try to convince Claiborne. Soon after, according to court filings, he took over the task of enrolling Jamal at Raffles, covering his school fees and getting him settled in Shanghai.

That spring Jamal leaned on Mr Wu more and more. The Chinese operative arranged for him to travel from Beijing to Yiwu, a large city outside Shanghai where vendors hawk craft supplies. Jamal then took a trip to Shanghai with two friends, and Mr Wu paid for their tickets. When the young man finally moved from Beijing to start fashion school in Shanghai, Mr Wu found him an apartment, covered the rent and gave him a monthly stipend of 3,000 yuan. Whenever Jamal needed something, he asked Mr Wu: a shaver, a sewing machine, a trip to Thailand.

Jamal grew close enough to Mr Wu to involve him in his birthday celebration, which took place on a terrace of a fancy hotel overlooking Shanghai’s Huangpu river. Claiborne flew to Shanghai for the occasion, and they snapped a photo together, the city unfolding behind them. A new contact joined for the event: a man named Mr Zhang (another pseudonym), who was one of Mr Wu’s colleagues at the Shanghai branch of the MSS. Mr Wu had the cover of being a businessman, but his partner gave no pretence of being anything but a spy. It is not unusual for MSS agents to work in pairs, to prevent graft and ensure that sources actually exist. Mr Zhang quickly became as involved in Claiborne’s and Jamal’s lives as Mr Wu. In a note to Jamal one day, he told the young man not to worry about making money. “You should focus on the school,” he wrote. “Me and Mr Wu will try our best to cover the expenses.”

While Jamal was burning through money sent by Mr Wu, the MSS was staging its biggest intelligence coup to date: penetrating the secret communications system of the CIA. Beginning in 2010, CIA sources in China started disappearing or dying at an alarming clip. In one case, a source who worked for a Chinese government ministry was shot in broad daylight in front of his colleagues.

Claiborne probably knew nothing of this, but she was growing increasingly skittish about her own situation. In September 2012, shortly after Jamal’s birthday celebration, she told an acquaintance that she was deleting her Facebook account, explaining that the site made it easy for people to collect personal details and other information. As her tour in Beijing drew to a close, court documents show that she lied on a State Department exit-interview form that asked her to list all interactions she’d had with foreign nationals, writing “none”.

Claiborne’s next posting was to Khartoum in Sudan. After leaving China, she urged Jamal to take a more responsible attitude to the unearned largesse he was enjoying there. “You are there on someone else’s dime…and because of someone else’s sacrifices,” she reminded him. But still she indulged him, asking Mr Wu for help sending him on holiday between school terms. “I think it would be good if he could go home for that time…it will do him good,” she wrote to Mr Wu. “Is there some way you can make that happen?”

As a parting gift, Mr Wu and Mr Zhang gave Claiborne an iPhone and a MacBook, devices that they may have used to track her from halfway around the world.

The emails, text messages and photos obtained by the FBI don’t explain everything about Claiborne’s relationship with Mr Wu. One August, when the temperature in Beijing soared to the high 20s, Claiborne emailed him saying that her feet were cold and she needed slippers – an odd request that suggests she was talking about something other than her feet. The court documents show that the Chinese intelligence officers gave gifts and payments worth tens of thousands of dollars to Claiborne and Jamal, but reveal little about what happened when they met in person. After Claiborne left China she seemed to veer between efforts to distance herself from her Chinese contacts and friendly correspondence with them.

Mr Wu and Mr Zhang were apparently unfazed by Claiborne’s move to Khartoum and her attempts to pull away. There is no known example of MSS operatives ending a relationship. According to court documents, Claiborne had been in Sudan only weeks when she heard, in August 2013, that Jamal had been accused of a crime in China. (A source close to the case called it a “personal indiscretion”.) Mr Zhang offered his assistance. He and Mr Wu had intervened on Jamal’s behalf and convinced the police not to prosecute, he told Claiborne, but the authorities had insisted on cancelling Jamal’s student visa. Jamal had just days to leave the country. Ever obliging, the agents booked the young man a one-way ticket to Washington, DC.

If it was all a setup, it was a curious move. The Chinese agents exerted control over Claiborne through Jamal. Once he was out of China, they would have less immediate leverage. On the other hand, the event left Claiborne even more beholden to them. Afterwards, she urged Jamal to cut off communication with Mr Wu and Mr Zhang, saying, “This has been too much for me from the beginning and I want to be free of this.” She added that she didn’t want to be indebted “to anyone but God”. A few months later, Mr Zhang wrote to Claiborne saying that he and Mr Wu were planning a tour of Africa and wanted to stop in Khartoum. She demurred. He followed up in March and Mr Wu tried in April: “If everything smooth, we should be in Africa beginning of May,” he wrote. In the response detailed in court filings, Claiborne said that she had taken a new position in Washington, DC, then emailed Jamal and warned him not to reveal her actual location. “As far as you know I’m in DC,” she wrote.

But Claiborne remained in their orbit. In August she sent them a warm email thanking them for the help they had given Jamal, signing the message “Kangdai”, the Chinese name she had adopted. When she was back in Washington in September 2015, she emailed Mr Wu her bank details, along with a note asking if he could help out. His response made clear that she meant with money. “Can you inform me clearly the 5k to which account?”

In the summer of 2015, the US Office of Personnel Management announced that its database had been hacked, a feat that gave the attacker access to the personal information of 21m US government employees. The attack was soon attributed to the MSS. As the intelligence community digested the implications of the breach, Claiborne’s relationship with Mr Wu finally started to catch up with her.

A few days after the exchange with Mr Wu about money, the State Department brought Claiborne in for an unexpected security review. The investigator, Patricia Crampton, started the encounter with a warning: “18 USC 1001 makes it a crime to knowingly falsify or conceal material facts related to this investigation.” Crampton went on to ask for a detailed explanation of Claiborne’s activities in China. In her response, according to the court filings, Claiborne lied about her contacts there, the gifts she had received and the extent of Jamal’s overseas travels.

After the interview, she panicked. She called Jamal from a phone booth three floors beneath her office in the State Department and urged him not to “say anything about…um…ya know”. She also called Mr Wu and told him that she’d been brought in for review, warning him not to transfer the money. “They ask oh so many questions,” she told him. “You have no idea.”

“So I can’t transfer the 5k to your that – to your account?” Mr Wu asked.

“No no no no no,” she said, her voice crackling through the pay phone. “No no no no no.” Later she added: “I just cleaned, cleaned up all my emails and stuff. You know, delete, delete, delete.”

“Good,” Mr Wu said. “Understand.”

Crampton knew Claiborne had made false statements, but investigators sat on the case for months hoping to catch her committing a more serious crime. Now that Claiborne was stationed in America, the FBI could easily watch her. Investigators installed surveillance cameras outside her home and at her office at the State Department, and they collected evidence using a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant, which allows for covert “sneak-and-peek” searches and tapping of phones. In February 2016 the State Department told Claiborne that her background check was complete, then waited to see what she would do.

Claiborne became less cautious. When Mr Wu turned 50 that spring, she reminded Jamal to congratulate him. Jamal, meanwhile, planned another trip to China, undeterred by the circumstances under which he had left the country.

As his plane sat on the runway waiting to take off, he spoke to Claiborne by phone. “If you happen to talk to Mr Wu or any of them, just say Candace is working in DC,” she told him. She added, in a statement which prosecutors would later cite, “I’m sure they’ll ask. They’re spies.”

On a cold, dark evening in January 2017, several days after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, a man stood outside Claiborne’s door as she returned home from work. He introduced himself as a colleague of Mr Wu and Mr Zhang, and Claiborne ushered him inside.

The man, who was ethnically Chinese, explained that he worked for the MSS. When he offered Claiborne a chunk of cash, she refused. “Things are not the way they used to be,” she warned him. The Feds were asking too many questions, she added. She seemed unconcerned by his claim that he worked for the MSS, and when he told Claiborne that she was one of the state security ministry’s “highest regarded” friends, she didn’t correct him. In fact, Claiborne’s visitor was an FBI agent working undercover. Soon after, Claiborne was arrested at home. Jamal was named as co-conspirator, but never charged with any wrongdoing.

In April 2019 Claiborne pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to defraud the United States. Her sentencing was held in Washington’s E. Barrett Prettyman Building, the same courthouse where the warrant authorising her surveillance had been issued. In a courtroom decked out with blond wood and a green carpet, before a small audience of investigators, relatives and bystanders, Judge Randolph Moss considered her situation.

Prosecutors argued that she had passed sensitive information to the MSS, and that her actions could have damaged State Department operations, noting that the devices she accepted might have doubled as bugs. Claiborne’s lawyer, a public defender, stumbled. “She made a mistake that then turned into criminal conduct,” he said weakly.

She sat to one side of him, wearing an orange jumpsuit and a headscarf. In the time since her arrest, she had turned back to religion – she now prayed five times a day – and her dancer’s poise had degenerated into a slump. When the lawyers finished, she slid on a pair of reading glasses and read from a prepared statement. “This is not what I envisioned for my life – to be looked down upon, to be sentenced as a criminal,” Claiborne said. “To this day I still don’t know how I lost myself.” She continued: “I weep into my soul. I do not know how I lost my moral compass.” Her voice cracked.

The judge sentenced her to 40 months in prison and a $40,000 fine.

Absent from the courtroom were Mr Wu and Mr Zhang, who presumably continued their work back in China. But at the very back of the gallery, a few rows behind a cluster of Claiborne’s family members, sat a young man who resembled the photos available online for Jamal. By the time the judge adjourned the court and the observers filed out, he was gone.