- - Thursday, August 16, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was once chairman of the committee and might be again if the Republicans blow the midterms. Her driver would have been, not a fly on the wall, but a fly on the steering wheel.

He would have been in a perfect place to pick up crucial details about where the senator went, and with whom she talked and what they talked about. A trusted driver hears a lot of interesting things because, as the late, great philosopher Yogi Berra might put it, “you can hear a lot by listening.” Her driver would have been a perfect source of intelligence that any foreign government would try to cultivate as a spy. In fact, that’s exactly what the Chinese did.

After the publication of an account in Politico of a report on Chinese espionage operations in Silicon Valley, Mrs. Feinstein released an account of her own, saying in part that “Five years ago the FBI informed me it had concerns that an administrative member of my California staff was potentially being sought out by the Chinese government to provide information.” Mrs. Feinstein says she then fired the staffer, who had worked with her for nearly two decades. Not only had he worked as her personal chauffeur in San Francisco, the senator’s hometown, he also worked as an office director and liaison to the local Chinese community. He even represented the senator at events in the Bay Area.

“The intrigue started years earlier when the staffer took a trip to Asia to visit relatives and was befriended by someone who continued to stay in touch with him on subsequent visits,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “That someone was connected with the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of State Security.” The Ministry of State Security maintains a presence in China’s San Francisco consulate, to which the driver is thought to have reported his findings.

Despite the current obsession with all things Russian, Chinese intelligence operations against the United States have been ramped up in recent years. These operations coincided with growing Chinese economic and military might, which makes them all the more threatening. Most startling was the June 2015 Chinese hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Chinese hackers stole the personal data — including Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information — of more than 21 million Americans. This not only has obvious intelligence value, but offers the Chinese many blackmail opportunities as well.

Earlier this year, Congress heard testimony from Michelle Van Cleave, a former counterintelligence official, who said that “China has a government-directed, multi-faceted secret program whose primary task is technology acquisition, as well as a highly refined strategy to develop and exploit access to advantageous information through the global telecommunications infrastructure.” Ms. Van Cleave pointed to a vast array of intelligence collectors, including students and researchers, as conduits for stolen information from the United States to China. American corporations, meanwhile, have suffered from Chinese cyber plundering for years.

China has been effective at crippling our own operations in China. “The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward. Current and former American officials describe the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades,” The New York Times reported earlier this year.

Set against this, it’s little surprise that Sen. Feinstein appeared an attractive target to the ever-acquisitive Chinese. What is surprising is that the driver appeared to be able to act with impunity for years, in a clear breakdown in the vetting operations of a powerful senator with access to classified information. The senator, for her part, has said that her driver “never had access to classified or sensitive information or legislative matters.” That may be technically correct, but it discounts the kind of information a driver is privy to. A former Justice Department official told Columnist Marc Thiessen that the incident was, and is, serious because “focusing on his driver function alone, in mafia families, the boss’s driver is among the most trusted men in the crew, because among other things he heard everything that was discussed in the car.”

Perhaps Dianne Feinstein never discussed anything important with anybody in the back seat of her limo. But over two decades of opportunity, that seems highly unlikely.

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