China’s intelligence service sought to recruit a Chinese-American staff member for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a lawmaker who had access to the most sensitive U.S. secrets, but Beijing gained no secrets in the case.
The California Democrat said in a statement that the FBI notified her five years ago that a staff member in California was “potentially being sought out by the Chinese government to provide information.”
“He was not a mole or a spy, but someone who a foreign intelligence service thought it could recruit,” Ms. Feinstein said.
“The FBI reviewed the matter, shared its concerns with me, and the employee immediately left my office,” she said, adding that the unidentified staff member did not have access to classified or sensitive information or legislative matters.
“The FBI never informed me of any compromise of national security information,” the senator said.
Ms. Feinstein chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2009 to 2015. As chairwoman, she had access to the U.S. intelligence community’s most sensitive secrets, including covert action programs, clandestine spying operations and other secret intelligence operations.
The senator’s statement did not identify the staff member by name.
However, The Daily Caller reported that the person sought out by the Chinese likely was Russell Lowe, a Chinese-American who worked for Ms. Feinstein for 20 years and served as liaison to San Francisco’s large Asian-American community.
A spokesman for Ms. Feinstein did not dispute the report.
Mr. Lowe, current secretary general of the Education for Social Justice Foundation, could not be reached for comment. An email request for comment sent to Mr. Lowe at the foundation, which publicizes the Japanese military’s use of “comfort women” during World War II, was not returned.
Former FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Harp, who worked in the San Francisco field office until October 2015, said he was not familiar with Mr. Lowe.
Mr. Harp said counterintelligence investigations like the one involving Ms. Feinstein’s staff member are difficult and very complicated. “Sometimes the endgame is not prosecution but disruption,” he said.
Chinese intelligence has targeted high-technology secrets from nearby Silicon Valley and is engaged in covert operations to influence Americans, especially ethnic Chinese-Americans, to support China’s policies and views. The Chinese regard San Francisco, with its large Chinese-American community, as a priority intelligence target.
“They always have their tentacles into the community, not only for secrets but for political influence,” Mr. Harp said in an interview.
The story of the Chinese spy was first reported in Politico on July 27 and appears to be a political “inoculation” story designed to minimize the impact on Ms. Feinstein’s re-election bid. The senator, 84, is seeking re-election and ran into opposition from more liberal California Democrats who have opposed Ms. Feinstein for being too bipartisan.
Politico said the recruited source in the senator’s office reported back to China’s Ministry of State Security on local politics and provided political intelligence. The agent was run by officials at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, the news outlet reported, quoting former intelligence officials.
Disclosure of the spy case comes as FBI Director Christopher Wray said last month that Chinese intelligence operations pose “the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country.”
After years of scant prosecutions or exposure of Chinese intelligence operations, the Trump administration has stepped up counterespionage activities against the Chinese. Three recent spy cases have highlighted Chinese espionage threats.
They include former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Ron Rockwell Hansen, who was charged in June with spying for China; former CIA officer Kevin Mallory, who was convicted in June of conspiracy to commit espionage in attempting to sell secrets to China; and Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who was arrested in January on spy charges.
Intelligence officials suspect Mr. Lee compromised the CIA’s recruited agent network in China beginning in 2010.
PENTAGON RESTRICTS USE OF ELECTRONIC DEVICES
Concerned over foreign electronic spying and terrorist targeting, the Pentagon announced this week that all defense and military personnel in “operational areas” are banned from using fitness and other devices that provide geolocation data. The ban includes fitness trackers, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and related software applications that can relay location information remotely.
“The rapidly evolving market of devices, applications and services with geolocation capabilities presents significant risk to Department of Defense personnel both on and off duty, and to our military operations globally,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan stated in a departmentwide memorandum sent Aug. 3. “These geolocation capabilities can expose personal information, locations, routines and numbers of DoD personnel, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission.”
The restrictions were imposed following a report in January that Strava, a social network for athletes, had inadvertently revealed sensitive information on the locations and staffing of military bases and intelligence outposts around the world.
Security officials are concerned that adversaries or terrorists could use the geolocation data to target American soldiers or intelligence personnel.
The memorandum said combatant commanders could approve the use of nongovernment devices with geolocation capabilities after a security survey is done. Government-issued geolocation devices also can be used based on mission necessity, within operational security constraints.
Commanders also must provide security training on the use of geolocation devices.
Within 30 days of the Aug. 3 memorandum, the Pentagon’s chief information officer and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence must draw up risk-management guidance and training for geolocation devices for commanders and heads of Pentagon components.
MATTIS ON SPACE FORCE
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week that the Pentagon is moving ahead with development of a space force.
Asked about President Trump‘s direction to set up the combatant command for space warfare, Mr. Mattis told reporters on Tuesday that he is fully behind the plan.
“We need to address space as a developing war-fighting domain, and a combatant command is certainly one thing that we can establish,” he said.
Mr. Mattis said he is ” in complete alignment” with Mr. Trump’s concern that American space satellites and other critical assets need protection.
Space systems “contribute to our security, to our economy, and we’re going to have to address it as other countries show a capability to attack those assets,” Mr. Mattis said.
The defense secretary said it is not clear whether the new force will be a combatant command or a separate military service. “We are working our way through all this,” he said, noting that Vice President Mike Pence is the point man for the effort.
“We are working closely, daily with his office and with supporters on Capitol Hill and the relevant committees.”
The characteristics of the organization are still being worked out, but “it’ll be fit for purpose,” he noted.
“We’ll get it right. We’ll work it through the Congress. We have the direction from the president, and we’re underway,” Mr. Mattis said.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.