News & Politics

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.

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 fiancée 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.

In October 2004, after he got his degree from Grand Valley State, Shriver moved back to Shanghai. There he was approached for a very different kind of job.

He was 22 years old.

China’s Ministry of State Security, (MSS) and a separate agency, the Military Intelligence Department of the People’s Liberation Army (MID) spy on the United States. They have had some successes—obtaining the design of America’s state-of-the-art nuclear warhead, which arms the missiles on the Trident submarines, and details of the neutron bomb.

The agencies have also acquired a wide range of other military secrets, from details about the B-2 bomber and the Navy’s system for making submarines run quietly and be harder to detect to encryption equipment and cruise-missile stealth technology. Chinese hackers have penetrated computers in several government agencies—including the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Sandia nuclear-weapons lab in New Mexico—as well as more mundane targets: The US Chamber of Commerce, Washington’s most powerful business lobby, said this winter that its computers had been penetrated by Chinese hackers to such an extent that the thermostat and a printer in a chamber-owned apartment were communicating with computers in China.

Counterintelligence agents of the FBI have had some success in foiling Chinese espionage operations here. In the past few years, the FBI rolled up a loosely linked group of ten Chinese spies on the West and East coasts, all run by a spymaster in Beijing who calls himself Lin Hong.

“Mr. Wu” and “Mr. Wang” wanted Glenn Shriver to land a job with the US government. If he did, they said, “we can be close friends.”

None of this should be entirely surprising—countries spy on one another, and the US spies on China just as Chinese intelligence does its best to steal secrets in this country. China’s ongoing espionage against the US has paralleled its rise as a global economic power.

During the Cold War, American counterintelligence focused primarily on the Soviet Union. China took a back seat. Far fewer counterspies in the FBI and the CIA were assigned to uncover Chinese intelligence operations.

Back in Shanghai for the third time, Shriver needed more serious employment than beer commercials. He answered an ad in English offering to pay someone with a background in Asian studies to write a paper on US/China relations concerning Taiwan and North Korea. A Chinese woman who said her name was “Amanda” contacted him, met with him, and paid him $120 for the essay he wrote.

The Chinese recruitment dance had begun, as intelligence operations usually do, with a low-key approach.

A few months later, Amanda contacted Shriver again. She told him the paper he wrote was good and asked if he’d like to meet some other people. Shriver agreed, and Amanda introduced him to “Mr. Wu” and “Mr. Tang.”

Shriver realized soon enough that his new companions were intelligence officers.

All three were officers of the MSS, China’s foreign intelligence service headquartered in Beijing. They talked about developing a “friendship” with the young American. They seemed particularly interested in whether he might try to get a job with a US government agency. If he did, they said, “we can be close friends.”

Had he ever thought about working for the State Department or the CIA? “That would be pretty good,” the MSS officers said.

The officers suggested he go ahead and apply to US intelligence or law-enforcement agencies. Shriver agreed.

In April 2005, Shriver took the US Foreign Service exam in Shanghai. He flunked, but the MSS paid him $10,000 for his “friendship.”

The following April, he again took the exam and failed. This time the Chinese paid him $20,000 for trying.

At some point, Shriver began using the code name Du Fei in his communications with China, a play on his middle name, Duffie.

In June 2007, Shriver and his Chinese handlers took aim at a more sensitive target: He completed an online application for the CIA. Specifically, he applied to the National Clandestine Service, the division that conducts covert operations and gathers intelligence overseas.

As the first step in his application, Shriver was told to create an account. “You will have three days to complete and submit your application,” the instructions said. In an echo of Mission: Impossible, the CIA form warned: “At the end of three days, whether you submit your application or not, your account will be disabled!”

The Clandestine Service, the application instructions informed Shriver, “is more than just a job—it’s a way of life.” Operations officers, it said, needed “street sense” and the “ability to cope with stress.” They would live undercover and gain little outside recognition.

The clearance process for applications would involve “a thorough examination of your life history and fitness to safeguard the nation’s secrets. Think of this process as the first step in building a bridge of trust between you and the Agency.” The investigation would examine Shriver’s “character, trustworthiness, honesty” and “freedom from conflicting allegiances.”

Suggesting that Shriver apply to the CIA was a bold move by the MSS. Normally, foreign intelligence agencies try to recruit agents who are already in place inside the bureaucracy. But with “Du Fei,” China was attempting something new—inserting a mole in the CIA from the start.

To have a spy inside America’s intelligence agency from the get-go offered unique opportunities to Beijing. He would likely rise undetected within the ranks of the CIA. In fact, such a mole was every intelligence agency’s dream.

Shriver was well aware that, once accepted by the CIA, he’d be expected to send classified documents back to the MSS, which would continue to pay him.

By now, he had moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for a tattoo-supply company. In September 2007, a few months after applying to the CIA, he secretly flew back to Shanghai for two weeks and met with his handlers. He told the MSS officers that he had applied to the CIA. He asked for and got a payment of $40,000, which meant he had received a total of $70,000 from the Chinese intelligence service. All the payments were in US currency, which he smuggled back into this country.

In China, starting in 2004, Shriver had met with one or more MSS officers some 20 times. In addition, he stayed in contact with Amanda, his principal handler, on an almost monthly basis.

When someone applies to the CIA, the background checks take months, even years. As he waited to hear back from the Agency, he apparently tired of the work at the tattoo-supply house and moved to South Korea, where he took a job teaching English and met Yumi Kim. In the summer of 2009, he visited his father with his new girlfriend, and they later became engaged.

Kim was struck early on by what she later described as Shriver’s great love of the United States. “The entire time that I have known him, he has never spoken bad of his country,” she said. “I even nicknamed him Mr. Patriot.”

Robert Hanssen and Katrina Leung both spent decades compromising US secrets, as Chinese intelligence hoped Shriver would do as well. Photograph of Hanssen courtesy of AFP PHoto/Newscom. Photograph of Leung by Sing Tao Daily/ZUMA Press/Newscom.

At last, in December 2009, Shriver was notified to report to Washington the following May for final processing of his CIA application. Meanwhile, Amanda had asked that he fly to China to meet her in Shanghai or Hong Kong. He replied, “Things are going well here. I am making some progress for us. But right now is a bad time for me to come visit. Maybe you can wait six months. In six months I will have good news.”

Shriver knew that investigators conducting his background check might discover yet another trip to China, which would jeopardize his CIA application. He had already lied on his employment questionnaire, saying he had not had any contact with a foreign government.

In June 2010, Shriver reported for what he thought was a series of final security screenings at a secret CIA location in Northern Virginia. He told interviewers he had never been approached by or taken money from a foreign intelligence service.

The final screenings were a sham. Officials claim to have realized at an earlier stage that Shriver had been dealing with Chinese intelligence. But CIA and FBI sources are close-mouthed about the Shriver case, declining to talk about how and when he was discovered.

One official does reveal that Shriver’s connection to the MSS hadn’t been learned through the normal background investigation of CIA applicants. The secrecy surrounding the case suggests that the information that led to him came either from a National Security Agency interception of his communications with his Chinese handlers, from a source inside China, or from a defector.

On June 22, 2010—a week after his last screening interview for the CIA—Shriver was about to board a plane at the Detroit airport that would take him back to South Korea when FBI agents moved in and arrested him.

Although China’s attempt to plant a mole in the CIA was unusual, it has in the past infiltrated both the CIA and the FBI.

Decades earlier, Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a top Chinese translator for the CIA, was caught after serving as a Chinese source inside the intelligence agency for more than 30 years.

The FBI was penetrated by Katrina Leung, a prominent figure in the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles who had been given the code name Parlor Maid when she worked as an FBI asset for 20 years.

Leung, as it turned out, had had affairs with the bureau’s two top agents on the West Coast responsible for Chinese counterintelligence, James J. Smith and William Cleveland Jr. She fed FBI secrets to the MSS for years, telling investigators she had filched them from Smith’s briefcase during their trysts at her home.

In April 2003, Leung and Smith were arrested. No charges were filed against Cleveland, although he had to resign from his job as a counterintelligence officer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

After his arrest, Glenn Shriver was arraigned in federal court in Detroit and denied bail. The government was represented by a federal prosecutor from Northern Virginia, Stephen M. Campbell, who had been an assistant US Attorney in Alexandria for eight years.

A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Campbell had worked for the deputy attorney general, overseeing national-security matters, which included supervising espionage investigations. In Alexandria, he prosecuted terrorism cases. He had also served on a presidential task force reviewing the disposition of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, for which he received an award from Attorney General Eric Holder.

Shriver didn’t yet know it, but Campbell would play the key role in determining his fate. Through a court-appointed federal defender, Shriver agreed to waive his transfer to the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria, the government’s preferred venue for espionage cases.

A week later, Shriver was wearing a green jumpsuit in a cell at the red-brick Alexandria city jail when G. Allen Dale first met his client. Dale, a prominent Washington criminal-defense attorney, had been hired by Shriver’s mother.

Dale, another Georgetown law graduate, had worked for Senator Sam Ervin on the Senate Watergate Committee and had since earned a solid reputation as a criminal-defense lawyer. Although graying at the temples, Dale looks younger than his 61 years. In his dark suit and white shirt, he presents a conservative, all-business appearance—only the gold cuff links betray a hint of a flamboyant side to an attorney who has defended a number of celebrated clients in highly publicized cases.

He was one of the attorneys working for Dr. Elizabeth Morgan in the District of Columbia’s longest-running child-custody case. Morgan, a plastic surgeon, served two years in jail for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her young daughter, Hilary. She accused her ex-husband, Fairfax County oral surgeon Eric Foretich, of molesting the child, a charge he strongly denied. It was later revealed that Morgan had hidden her daughter in New Zealand.

Dale was escorted to the visitor room, and the steel door clanged behind him. In a few moments a guard led Shriver in through an opposite door, which clicked shut as the guard withdrew so lawyer and prisoner could confer in private.

The case before them was daunting.

When questioned after his arrest by Thomas Barlow, an FBI agent in the Washington Field Office, Shriver recounted in detail his dealings with the Chinese.

Barlow’s questioning of Shriver was the break in the case. Espionage is a very difficult crime to prove, unless a suspect confesses or the FBI is able to catch someone in the act of passing secrets. The FBI declined to make Barlow available for an interview or to discuss the Shriver case. Similarly, Shriver didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Initially, Shriver was indicted for lying to the CIA when he denied his contacts with Chinese intelligence and for concealing from the CIA his trip to China in September 2007. But those charges, known by prosecutors as a “thousand-and-one case” for the relevant section of the US Code (Title 18, Section 1001), were a holding action by Campbell as he went through the bureaucratic process of declassifying documents that might be introduced at a trial.

Later, Shriver was charged under the espionage laws for conspiring to obtain documents relating to the national defense that “the defendant would have reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation” and to transmit the documents and information to unauthorized persons—that is, the MSS officers.

The US always prefers to avoid trials in spy cases to prevent the exposure of classified intelligence, including what it calls intelligence “sources and methods.” Shriver had been indicted under Section 793 of the espionage laws, which called for a maximum prison sentence of ten years. But the prosecutor made it clear that if a plea deal couldn’t be reached, he would try to charge Shriver under the more draconian provision of the espionage laws, Section 794, which could conceivably have meant life imprisonment.

In October 2010, Shriver pleaded guilty to conspiring to pass defense secrets to China’s intelligence service.

Why do people spy? And what could possibly motivate an all-American boy from Virginia to conspire to spy for China?

On the broader question, there is a variety of reasons people betray their country. During the Cold War—but seldom today—ideology was often a reason. Frequently, spies, especially those who defected from the Soviet Union, acted out of a desire for revenge on bureaucrats who they felt had failed to recognize their talents. Spies with personal vulnerabilities may be susceptible to recruitment by an intelligence service or may volunteer their services. That was true of Aldrich Ames and Edward Lee Howard, CIA officers with severe drinking problems who approached the Russians and spied for them.

But Glenn Shriver had no such personal liabilities. He had no history of youthful misdeeds, no criminal record. His only previous brush with the law was a speeding ticket he received in the spring of 2006.

The answer in his case appears to be simply money. And not, in the grand scheme of things, all that much—just $70,000, with the promise of more down the road.

Yet Shriver was young and had never held high-paying jobs, and the $70,000 he was paid by Chinese intelligence may have looked like a lot of money to him.

“I think he was just swept away by the lure of easy money,” his father, Jon, says. “I think he took money from them because he wanted money. I don’t think he thought through that.”

At his sentencing, Shriver told the judge he regretted his actions.

“I have let down my family, my fiancée, and I have let down myself,” he said. “It started out fairly innocuous: ‘Oh, you know, we really want to help young people here in China. You know, we realize sometimes you’re far from home and the costs can be quite a bit, so here is just a little bit to help you out.’ And then it kind of spiraled out of control.

“I think I was motivated by greed,” Shriver confessed. “I mean, you know, large stacks of money in front of me.”

There is also some evidence that Shriver, with an inflated idea of his own abilities, may have thought he could outwit the MSS. After he was arrested, he rationalized that if he had been accepted by the CIA, he could have refused to hand over any secrets to Beijing. His deal with the Chinese officers could have been a one-time adventure; perhaps he could have taken the money and run.

If Shriver really believed that, he demonstrated a great deal of naiveté about the world of espionage. When an intelligence agency recruits and pays someone, it is basic tradecraft to get the person to sign for the money. Once he or she does, the intelligence agency owns that person.

In hotel rooms in Shanghai, Shriver signed for the money he got from the Chinese. Once he did so, he was completely vulnerable. If he had gained the CIA job and balked at handing over secrets, his Chinese handlers would have gently reminded him that they had his signature on receipts for the money. If he were exposed as a spy inside the CIA, the consequences wouldn’t be pleasant.

On January 21, 2011, in the US District Court in Alexandria, Shriver, still not yet 30, stood before Judge Liam O’Grady for judgment: He was sentenced to four years.

Shriver was sent to the federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, about 45 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. With time served, the Federal Bureau of Prisons expects he’ll be released at the end of next year.

He calls his mother every day.

His fiancée, Yumi Kim, has promised to wait for him.

At the sentencing hearing, Shriver had struggled to explain his actions to Judge O’Grady. “Somewhere along the way,” he said, “I climbed into bed with the wrong people.”

The attempt of the MSS to insert a mole inside the CIA had failed. But not by much.

Says Lisa Monaco, assistant US attorney general for national security: “China’s intelligence service was patient and willing to invest substantial amounts of money up front for the mere possibility of Shriver gaining access to classified US information sometime down the road. We’ve got to assume there may be other Shrivers out there.”

This article appears in the June 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.