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Mole-in-Training: How China Tried to Infiltrate the CIA
The odd story of how a Virginia study-abroad student ended up in federal prison for espionage. By David Wise
Comments () | Published June 7, 2012
Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz.

On any given night, the red-brick city jail in Alexandria holds some 400 inmates, most of them facing state and local charges—everything from run-of-the-mill drug possession to suspected murder.

Yet the detention center also serves a less recognized role: It’s the temporary home of many high-profile Russian spies caught in the United States. Two of America’s most infamous traitors—FBI agent Robert Hanssen and CIA officer Aldrich Ames—both spent their first nights in jail in Alexandria, less than a mile from the courthouse where federal prosecutors would begin the process of putting them away for life.

Now the courthouse and some of the nation’s top espionage prosecutors—based in the offices of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia—have had to face a new threat: China.

The case that confronted assistant US Attorney Stephen Campbell was unique in the annals of espionage: Never before had the Chinese government recruited an American citizen as a spy and then tried to plant him inside the CIA.

When Campbell first saw the target of his investigation—Glenn Duffie Shriver—the young man didn’t look much like a spy. But then spies rarely fit preconceived notions of what a spy looks like. Perhaps one of the things that attracted the Chinese security services to Shriver was his ordinariness.

Seemingly nothing in his background would have made the Virginia native a likely mole. Yet by an age at which most twentysomethings were just beginning to figure out their career paths, Shriver was risking decades in federal prison.

Campbell’s first encounter with him left the attorney with a question: How did a former wrestling coach—a young man whose fiancĂ©e called him Mr. Patriot—end up in the pay of the Chinese foreign intelligence service?

Glenn Duffie Shriver was born in Virginia’s Henrico County, near Richmond, on November 23, 1981. His father, Jon M. Shriver Sr., worked in the electronics business. A year after Glenn’s birth, his parents separated, and a year after that—in 1983—his mother, Karen, took Glenn with her when she moved to Michigan. An older half brother, Jon Jr., remained with his father.

Glenn grew up in Jenison, a bedroom suburb of Grand Rapids. After his parents divorced, his father moved to Palmer Springs in southern Virginia and his mother remarried. Glenn spent every summer and every other Christmas with his father.

“He was just a normal kid,” his father says.

During those visits, according to Glenn’s father, they played basketball and had wide-ranging discussions—Glenn enjoyed intellectual banter. “He’s interested in that,” his father recalls, “not unlike a game of chess.”

Glenn seemed to be a natural at foreign languages—he learned Spanish in high school while studying abroad in Barcelona. He inherited an American flag that had belonged to his grandfather, a World War II Navy veteran. He framed the flag and displayed it in his bedroom. His mother later described him as a “good person” who “has always gone out of his way to help others, especially the children and the elderly.”

More than six feet tall, 180 pounds, athletic and muscular, Glenn Shriver excelled at wrestling and coached the sport for a time at his local high school outside Grand Rapids. He was handsome. Says one acquaintance: “He’s a ladies’ man and a charmer. He’s a talker with a very appealing personality. He’s intelligent but full of himself.”

After high school, Glenn enrolled in Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, close to his hometown. He began to take Chinese courses and, at the end of his freshman year in 2001, went to the university’s summer school in Shanghai.

The 45-day immersion in Chinese culture, philosophy, and history was an overwhelming experience for the 19-year-old. As a group, the 15 American students traveled to China’s historical sites—the Great Wall, the famous terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an—and explored their new surroundings through two academic courses, one on Chinese culture and philosophy and another on Chinese geography. Thad Domick, Shriver’s roommate in Shanghai, told a reporter, “The country did seem to grow on him, but it grew on a lot of us.”

Professor Geling Shang, co-leader of the group, says he found Shriver likeable: “He is a very nice boy. We played basketball. We had a lot of fun together.”

With his good looks, Shriver came across to some as conceited. “He may have suffered from vanity and pride,” Shang says. “He thought maybe he was better than other people. He dressed well and was particular about his appearance, his hair. Very neat.”

Shriver’s immersion in China turned out to be deeper than most of the students’—Shang was surprised that summer when Shriver said he’d been hired as an extra by China’s most famous filmmaker, Zhang Yimou. Zhang was shooting a promotional film for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Shriver liked China so well that in 2002 he enrolled in Grand Valley State’s junior-year-abroad program to study Chinese. Back in Shanghai at the East China Normal University, he became proficient in Mandarin—and took another acting job. Says Shang: “I saw a commercial and I said, ‘That’s Glenn!’ He was doing a beer commercial, holding a bottle of beer.”

With his language skills—fluent Mandarin speakers are in demand by American companies—and his personable demeanor, Shriver’s future seemed bright. Yet Shang worried something was missing: Shriver didn’t seem to have a sense of direction about what he wanted to do with his life.

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Posted at 10:35 AM/ET, 06/07/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles