A US state department official has been arrested and charged in a federal court after allegedly accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth of payments and gifts from Chinese spies in return for information.
Candace Claiborne appeared in court in Washington DC on Wednesday charged with lying to the FBI and concealing frequent contacts with two Chinese intelligence officials over several years.
Claiborne, a 60-year-old administrative official with a top secret security clearance, is accused of receiving an Apple laptop, an iPhone and thousands of dollars in cash from the Chinese officials, despite privately acknowledging that they were “spies”.
An unidentified relative of Claiborne also allegedly received gifts and benefits from the Chinese officials under the scheme, and was even protected from a police investigation when he allegedly “committed a serious crime” while studying in China in August 2013.
“Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit,” Mary McCord, the acting assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement on Wednesday. Claiborne faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
In an unsealed criminal complaint filed to federal court, prosecutors said that Claiborne had admitted to passing information to the Chinese officials but insisted that it was always unclassified.
The 58-page complaint did not accuse Claiborne of disclosing classified information but said she told investigators that she had given the Chinese officials “information about a dissident who was being secretly housed” at the US embassy.
The blind Chinese civil rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, arrived at the embassy after escaping house arrest in April 2012, causing a brief diplomatic crisis.
US authorities said the Chinese spies, whose names were redacted by prosecutors, were agents of the Shanghai state security bureau, a branch of China’s ministry of state security (MSS), the country’s civilian intelligence and security agency.
The agents are said to have preyed on Claiborne’s complaints of “financial woes” and her inability to fund the “overseas educational and career goals” of the unidentified relative “on her state department salary alone”.
She was found to have written in her journal that she could “generate 20k in 1 year” by working for the Chinese official, according to investigators. Claiborne is accused of repeatedly lying and concealing the arrangements when she was legally obliged to disclose contacts with foreign nationals, including when she applied to renew her top secret clearance in 2014.
In one alleged interaction detailed in the complaint, Claiborne agreed to perform a task for one of the agents, who had recently wired almost $2,500 to Claiborne’s US bank account, while she was stationed in the US embassy in Beijing in May 2011.
The official, said also to be a Shanghai-based importer-exporter who runs a spa and restaurant in the city, asked for private government information including the “internal evaluation” made by the US of recent economic talks with China. Claiborne sent back “publicly available information”.
Over the following years, the complaint alleges, Claiborne’s unidentified relative had his $47,000-a-year fashion college tuition and accommodation in China paid for by the Chinese officials. He also received a $450 monthly allowance, an all-expenses paid vacation to Thailand and frequent international plane tickets.
The Chinese agents intervened to stop police investigating the Claiborne relative when he committed a “possible felony offense”, and arranged for last-minute flights to get him out of the country, prosecutors said, calling this “an extraordinary step” that indicated the Chinese officials wielded influence within government.
The relative, who would now be 31, had lived with Claiborne through her earlier foreign postings, according to the authorities. At one moment of doubt about their activities, Claiborne is said to have told the relative: “I really don’t want my neck or your neck in a noose”. During another conversation she allegedly described the two Chinese officials as spies.
In January this year, a Chinese American undercover FBI agent who was posing as a colleague of the Chinese spies, visited Claiborne at her home in Washington DC. The FBI agent told Claiborne that MSS, the Chinese intelligence agency, considered her one of its “highest regarded friends” and thanked her for her past assistance.
Authorities said that Claiborne did not deny providing the Chinese officials with assistance but refused to continue with the arrangement or accept a cash payment. The situation had been complicated by “security stuff”, she explained, and “things are not the way they used to be”.