It is the stuff of a James Bond blockbuster: a young, attractive woman lures a rising political star into a romantic web, all the while collecting critical information to trickle back to her handler or big bosses back home.
Axios revealed this week that more than six years ago Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., began a relationship with a woman suspected of being a Chinese espionage operative. He was alerted by federal investigators in 2015 and given a “defense briefing,” which resulted in him breaking off ties to the suspect.
However, Swalwell wouldn’t be the first or last political figure to be “honey-trapped” – with multiple former intelligence officials surmising that such schemes carried out by Chinese spies have long played out on U.S. soil, and remain ongoing.
“I can say with a high level of confidence that there are many more of these women out there,” Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA Senior Clandestine Services Officer, told Fox News. “China’s MO is to flood the zone.”
While several current and former intelligence and security officials and experts interviewed by Fox News said that it was impossible to put a number on just how many honey trap scenarios might be in motion at present, one former defense and intelligence operative noted that it could be well into the hundreds – if not thousands. Such spies are assumed to be at top universities, known to speak perfect English, and routinely use social media platforms such as Linkedin and Facebook to connect with their prey.
But it is not only about enmeshing big names – it is about having an eye for talent, and starting when one’s star is about to begin rising.
In Swalwell’s case, he was seemingly ensnared by a woman named Christine Fang or Fang Fang, who helped raise money for his 2014 congressional re-election campaign and recruited at least one intern in his office.
However, U.S. investigators in the northern California Bay Area believe Fang was also circling close to numerous up-and-coming politicians between 2011 and 2015, engaging in sexual relationships with at least two mayors in other states.
According to the report, Fang was sent to gather information and attain influence on those rising in the ranks at the direct behest of China’s Ministry of State Security, with a “handler” based out of the San Fransisco consulate.
In 2015, her most high profile associate – Swalwell – became a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. However, around that time, Fang abruptly fled the U.S. as the FBI was homing in.
But unlike Fang, whose communications with the consulate came under scrutiny, Hoffman asserted that there are likely many more who have zero links to any officials.
“The goal is to become a trusted individual with who (the target) can share information. The spy here would have wanted to learn everything she could about his personality, every little detail of his leadership style to build a profile,” Hoffman said. “The idea here is to latch on to someone like a Swalwell when they are a junior and make contacts. It is much harder to do that when someone is already big and well-known. (This spy) recognized that.”
Indeed, the California Democrat is seemingly not alone in having fallen for the bait.
“The females who are employed in this tactic place themselves in a position where they come into contact with the targeted individual. The target is almost always a male, but there have been some instances of females also falling prey to this,” observed Del Wilber, a former U.S. intelligence officer. “The goal is to get the target into a compromising position, usually with photos or video evidence of their indiscretions.”
Wilber underscored that married men are most often the targets, but at one point homosexual behavior was also targeted and used against individuals.
“Once compromised, they are told to cooperate, or else their actions will be disclosed and they’ll be divorced, lose their government clearance and their job, etc.,” he asserted.
Multiple former intelligence officials told Fox News that China, while one of the dozens of countries that relies heavily on the honey trap tactic, has perfected it with a spattering of stratagems and techniques, used for different purposes with varying motivations.
And it is not only the likes of Swalwell, the main target, which the operatives want to glean but also those around them. Thus, many befriend aides, junior staffers, interns and the like to build a more comprehensive profile of the “high-value target.”
While covert Chinese operatives in recent times have come to be heavily associated with cyber espionage and hacking, the human intelligence gathering, termed “HUMINT,” remains a traditional staple.
In terms of intellectual property (I.P) theft, there is the colloquially-dubbed “mushroom.” This entails canvassing business proposals from companies in the U.S. and continuing to rebuff the applications and push for improved bids – all the while stealing the ideas and technical elements. Chinese I.P. theft has cost the United States $225 billion to $600 billion a year.
In other cases, the honey trap can be centered on collecting incriminating intelligence personally and professionally, to later destroy an ascending or already high-ranking career. Traps typically begin with perhaps an offer to help a political campaign or struggling business with personal expertise or via funding, and relations steadily swell from there.
“The honey trap technique has been glamorized by the Russians over the years, but the Chinese are the ones who have really been stepping up their game,” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who still works in the national security sector and thus requested anonymity. “But it has only been in more recent years that it has been targeted toward the more political side of the house.”
While much of China’s honey trap resources in decades past were centered on entangling high-flying businessmen or professors running top laboratories across the country, the source explained, efforts have expanded into the political sphere.
“And it is much easy trapping a politician than a CEO making millions, who has a lot more that money can buy,” the insider surmised.
Nonetheless, experts also emphasize that it isn’t always so clean-cut for the trap setter themselves, given that the Chinese leadership is well-versed in casting their own nets, too.
“We don’t always know if they are just doing it for the money, sometimes their families back in China could be threatened,” said Jamie Williamson, the founder/CEO of strategic management firm Global Executive Management (GEM), and a former U.S. military counterintelligence specialist. “Or they are being targeted in their own blackmail scheme if they don’t deliver.”
While being the oldest trick in the book, China’s specialty in that espionage field is believed to have been more systematically crafted and perfected in the years soon after President Richard Nixon visited Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong – and China’s subsequent economic opening to the world – just as prostitution and promiscuity became publicly entrenched in the social fabric.
Perhaps most famous for bringing the method to American soil was Katrina Leung, a Chinese national who emigrated to New York in the 1970s. She went on the become a naturalized citizen and signed on to become an FBI informant spying on her homeland. However, it was later exposed – after having seduced her FBI handler for two decades, all while sending classified material back to the CCP leadership – that she was a double-agent for the Chinese Ministry of State Security.
Leung was indicted in 2003 but her case was later thrown out on “grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.”
And the Beijing honey trap network extends well beyond the U.S. borders and is what officials deem a worldwide web.
According to a BBC analysis, rather than being run centrally, these operations tend to be run out of the provincial State Security bureau, each of which deals with a different geographic area of the world. So the Shanghai bureau, for example, covers the U.S., Beijing covers Russia and the former Soviet republics, Tianjin covers Japan and Korea, and so on.
In early 2011, French intelligence officials issued a warning that China has been deploying “beautiful female spies” to steal business secrets and blackmail their subjects. Such incidences included a Chinese spy sleeping with a top French pharmaceutical researcher and videotaping the affair as fodder for blackmail.
A year earlier, Britain’s security agency M15 accused the Chinese government of directing honey trap plots to hack into corporate British computer networks.
MI5 had, in 2008, distributed a document entitled “The Threat from Chinese Espionage” to numerous security officials and executives of banks and businesses, boldly cautioning that “Chinese intelligence services have also been known to exploit vulnerabilities such as sexual relationships and illegal activities to pressurize individuals to cooperate with them.”
When U.S. and other western officials make trips to China, even more warning words are raised.
In particular, Hoffman said there was a bevy of anxieties ahead of the September G20 Summit held in Hangzhou in September 2016.
Moreover, officials working with then-British Prime Minister Theresa May were also issued direct notifications by U.K. government security experts in advance in a bid to avoid the lure of “Chinese spies offering sex” during the major foreign policy event.
And a dossier collated in the U.K. earlier this year is reported to detail how honey traps have been used on bigwigs across the region in promoting the interests of Huawei, the Chinese 5G cell company banned by the Trump administration over security skepticism.
In 2016, the newly-appointed Dutch ambassador to Beijing was disclosed as having fallen for the classic ploy – despite apparent training in security given his high rank – with reports that his phone was stolen and secrets were siphoned by a female Chinese spook.
The FBI declined to comment further on the Swalwell case, but it is assumed to be barely the tip of the iceberg.
“The Chinese have a very ubiquitous presence here and the only way to prevent it is through education and awareness,” Hoffman added. “Instead of saying ‘No comment,’ Swalwell should be doing a public service announcement – warning others to be vigilant.”