Eric Swalwell was reportedly “shocked” when the FBI informed him in 2015 that Christine Fang, a Chinese national who first met him in 2012, was a suspected spy.
The California Democrat, now a four-term congressman with a seat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, immediately broke contact with Ms. Fang, who departed for Beijing shortly thereafter amidst an FBI probe.
Information does not have to be classified to be of value. By virtue of her access to Mr. Swalwell, Ms. Fang would have been able to help Chinese intelligence agencies map out his leadership profile, including social networks, professional contacts, work schedules and personality characteristics.
Ms. Fang’s target-spotting was not limited to Mr. Swalwell, whom she reportedly assisted with fundraising for a 2014 election campaign. She also helped place at least one intern in Mr. Swalwell’s office.
According to the FBI and news reports, Ms. Fang allegedly went on to cultivate romantic relationships with two Midwestern mayors; volunteer in the office of Fremont, Calif. Mayor Bill Harrison; work for now-U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful 2014 campaign; and help raise money for both Mr. Swalwell and fellow Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Creating the cover, which would enable the suspected Chinese operative to make innocuous contact with her targets, Ms. Fang enrolled at California State University in San Francisco and connected with elected officials at conferences and campus events.
Ms. Fang purposely cultivated relationships with junior politicians, who were eager to accept assistance from a seemingly non-threatening social broker. Politicians early in their careers tend to be relatively more vulnerable and unwary. Ms. Fang would then be poised to exploit the relationships as her targets assumed positions of greater responsibility.
Following Ms. Fang’s departure for China, the FBI reportedly provided counterintelligence briefings to the White House as well as some members of Congress.
But Mr. Swalwell himself had already missed an opportunity to become a leader on defending against China’s ruthless spying, which by 2015 had already reached a crescendo with the notorious hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. And there was the infamous case of Katrina Leung, aka “Parlor Maid,” a former FBI informant-double agent and Chinese intelligence officer who was indicted in 2003.
It is still not too late to act. And the stakes could not be higher — Ms. Fang was likely not the only undercover Chinese spy targeting our politicians.
China’s government is militarizing the South China Sea, trampling the civil liberties of Hong Kong residents, stealing U.S. intellectual property, threatening Taiwan with war, and using its “Belt and Road” scheme as a cover for debt-trap diplomacy. And let’s not forget Beijing concealed the outbreak and severity of the coronavirus and has not been a reliable and transparent partner on countering the pandemic.
Chinese intelligence branches are flooding the zone in the U.S., both through traditional espionage as well as exploiting its fellow travelers using non-official cover. Consider for example the “Thousand Talents” program, which targets the U.S. scientific community. There is an ongoing federal investigation into U.S. scientists and researchers at leading universities who have allegedly been enriching their bank accounts by endangering intellectual property developed through Pentagon and NIH grant programs.
When confronted about Ms. Fang last month, Mr. Swalwell said congressional offices lack the “technical capabilities” to vet their staffs. Mr. Swalwell of course should have immediately reported Ms. Fang to the local FBI, based on her status as a Chinese citizen.
The best we can do now is to use this intelligence flap to generate some overdue corrections, taking advantage of the strong bipartisan consensus to counter and deter China’s multifarious threats.
First, Mr. Swalwell experienced firsthand China’s espionage tradecraft. He is ideally positioned for a public service announcement highlighting the warnings signs of Chinese spying on our elected officials.
Second, the House intelligence panel should work with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to build a more comprehensive counterintelligence program focused on China for federal, state and local officials. Mr. Swalwell’s home state of California is under siege from Chinese spies tracking the Chinese diaspora and seeking to steal technology from Silicon Valley. The Golden State would be a major beneficiary of heightened awareness of the threat from Beijing.
I don’t think, as some have suggested, that Mr. Swalwell should lose his seat on the intelligence panel or forfeit his seat in Congress for being a target of Chinese intelligence, especially since, according to the FBI, Ms. Fang obtained no classified information from him. Threatening to do so would only create a vulnerability our adversaries would ruthlessly exploit against other lawmakers.
But Mr. Swalwell does need to be more transparent about his exposure to Chinese spycraft and do his part to shore up our nation’s defenses against Beijing’s pernicious cloak-and-dagger espionage.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.