FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2019 | Permalink

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Spain returns stolen material to North Korean embassy in Madrid, say sources

North Korea SpainAuthorities in Spain have returned material that was stolen from the embassy of North Korea in Madrid by a group of raiders in February, according to a source that spoke to the Reuters news agency. The unprecedented attack took place in the afternoon of February 22 in a quiet neighborhood of northern Madrid, where the North Korean embassy is located. Ten assailants, all Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff and some visitors to the embassy. After several hours spent inside the buildings, the assailants abandoned the building in two embassy vehicles that were later found abandoned.

A few weeks following the raid, a North Korean dissident group calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense —also known as Free Joseon— claimed responsibility for the attack. Cheollima Civil Defense is North Korea’s first known active resistance group. Its members call for the overthrow of the Kim dynasty. Subsequent reports said that some of those who took part in the embassy raided fled to the United States and approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with an offer to hand over computer hardware and telephones captured in the attack. On Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported that the FBI “returned the material [to Spanish authorities] two weeks ago”, and that Spanish police handed it over to the North Koreans. Citing “a Spanish judicial source”, Reuters said that American authorities returned the material directly to the Spanish court that is investigating the raid.

According to the news agency, Spanish authorities returned the material to the North Korean embassy without reviewing its contents, thus complying with the norms of diplomatic protocol. Data and items belonging to foreign embassies are usually off-limits to the authorities of host nations. The report did not clarify whether the FBI returned all the material that was stolen by the raiders in February, nor did it state whether the FBI reviewed its contents prior to handing it over to the Spanish court.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 April 2019 | Permalink

New book names ex-KGB defector who outed FBI agent Robert Hanssen as Russian spy

Robert HanssenA new book reveals for the first time the name of a former intelligence officer of the Soviet KGB who helped American authorities arrest Robert Hanssen, an American spy for the Soviet Union and Russia. The son of a Chicago police officer, Hanssen joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1976 and was eventually transferred to the Bureau’s Soviet analytical unit, where he held senior counterintelligence posts. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the FBI realized Hanssen had spied for Moscow since 1979. Following Hanssen’s arrest in 2001, it emerged that he had betrayed the names of 50 FBI and CIA assets or informants, many of whom perished in the hands of the Russian intelligence services.

In 2002, the US Department of Justice opined that Hanssen had caused “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history”. He is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. But despite numerous articles, reports and books on the Hanssen spy case, the story of the FBI investigation that led to his arrest remains at best fragmentary. A major question concerns the identity of the mysterious person that helped FBI counterintelligence investigators zero in on Hanssen after years of fruitless efforts to confirm suspicions of the existence of a Russian mole. It is known that the FBI paid the sum of $7 million to a former KGB officer, who delivered the contents of Hanssen’s Russian intelligence file. But the identity of that informant has not been revealed.

That may have changed as of last month, however, thanks to The Seven Million Dollar Spy, a book written by the late David Wise, a journalist and best-selling intelligence author who died on October 8, aged 88. Wise’s book, published posthumously on October 23 in audio book format, received little media attention. But Newsweek intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein said last week that the book might bring us a step closer to uncovering the identity of the individual who led to Hanssen’s capture. Stein explains that the mysterious informant had previously developed a business relationship with Jack Platt, a retired CIA case officer who after the end of the Cold War co-founded an international security consultancy with ex-KGB operative Gennady Vasilenko. The two men staffed their company with several American and Russian former spies. Among them was Anatoly Stepanov, a former case officer in the KGB. Stein reports that, according to Wise’s posthumous book, Stepanov is in fact the pseudonym of former KGB officer Aleksandr Shcherbakov. It was he who delivered Hanssen’s file to the FBI, thus facilitating his eventual capture. It is believed that Shcherbakov defected to the United States in 2010 where he continues to live today under an assumed identity.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2018 | Permalink

Envelopes containing deadly ricin poison intercepted at US Pentagon

PentagonAn investigation was opened in the United States on Tuesday, after two envelopes containing the deadly poison ricin were intercepted at the Pentagon. The envelopes were reportedly intercepted at a mail screening facility located in the vicinity of the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC. One of the envelopes was addressed to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while the other was addressed to Admiral John Richardson, who serves as Chief of Naval Operations. According to US news media, the envelopes were found to contain a powder-like substance. Upon discovery, the envelopes were secured by members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the US Department of Defense’s law enforcement body that is responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon complex.

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the substance inside the envelopes had been examined by its technicians and had tested positive for the deadly poison ricin. Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin found inside the seeds of castor oil plants, known commonly as castor beans. Though mostly harmless in its natural state, the toxin can be processed and effectively weaponized in the form of pellets, liquid acid, mist or powder. If it finds its way into the human body, through ingestion, inhalation or injection, it can kill in fewer than 48 hours. Death usually occurs as a result of organ failure and internal bleeding, which lead to a collapse of the circulatory system. There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.

On Tuesday afternoon, parts of the Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign office in Houston, Texas, were shut down, after two staff members came in contact with what was described as a “white powdery substance” inside an envelope. The staff members were rushed to the hospital, but tests carried out later that day showed that the substance was non-toxic.

The FBI said on Tuesday that its technicians would carry out further tests on the substances found at the Pentagon and at Senator Cruz’s office, in order to confirm the initial findings. It also said that there would be no further announcements until the tests are completed. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s mail screening facility remains under quarantine.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 October 2018 | Permalink

US government prosecutors confirm CIA officer passed information to China

CIAA case officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested in January of this year for violating the Espionage Act, shared classified information with China, according to an official indictment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, on January 15, accusing him of possessing classified information that included lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. Lee, 53, was reportedly arrested after a lengthy FBI sting operation, which included creating a fictional job in the US in order to entice Lee to travel to New York from Hong Kong, where he had been living after leaving the CIA in 2007. However, the initial FBI complaint did not indict Lee for passing the top-secret information to anyone. There was speculation at the time that this was because the FBI had not been able to conclusively prove that Lee carried out espionage.

On Tuesday, however, Lee was formally indicted on conspiracy to gather and deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government. That charge came in addition to a previously stated charge of unlawfully retaining material related to American national defense. The indictment repeats earlier allegations that Lee was found to be in possession of classified documents that included the real names of CIA assets (foreign citizens who are recruited by CIA case officers to spy for the United States abroad) and the locations of “covert facilities” –safe houses that are typically used by CIA personnel to meet with assets in privacy. In what can be described as the most descriptive allegations that have surfaced against Lee, the indictment proceeds to claim that he was approached by two Chinese intelligence officers in 2010, three years after he left the CIA. The officers allegedly offered to give Lee a substantial amount of money in exchange for access to classified information. Additionally, according to the court documents, Lee was provided by his Chinese handlers with email addresses that he could use to communicate with them covertly, and did as instructed “until at least 2011”.

The documents further state that Lee made “numerous […] cash deposits”, which he struggled to explain when questioned by American counterintelligence officials. On several instances, Lee lied during questioning in order to cover up his financial activities, according to the indictment. Lee’s defense lawyer, Edward MacMahon, told the court on Tuesday that his client was “not a Chinese spy”, but “a loyal American who loves his country”. He also pointed out that Lee served in the US military and the CIA. The Chinese government has made no comment about the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 May 2018 | Permalink

Ex-CIA case officer was arrested after being lured back to US at least once

FBIA former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested this week for violating the United States Espionage Act, was lured back to America from Hong Kong at least once by counterintelligence investigators, according to reports. Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007. He was arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation officers on Monday, as soon as he arrived in the US from Hong Kong. He is accused of carrying with him top-secret information about CIA agents and operations, which he was not authorized to possess. It now appears that the FBI had been investigating Lee since 2010, and that he was lured to the US in 2012 so that he could be investigated. It is also possible that he was lured back to the US from his home in Hong Kong on Monday, so that he could be arrested by the FBI.

The New York Times said on Wednesday that a consortium of FBI agents and CIA officers identified Lee as a suspect in a counterintelligence case involving the loss of over a dozen CIA assets in China between 2010 and 2012. By that time, Lee had left his job as a case officer —essentially a spy handler— in the CIA and was living in Hong Kong. According to NBC, the FBI decided to lure Lee back to American soil by creating a job for him in the nation’s capital. That was the reason why Lee traveled with his family back to the US in August of 2012. The family stopped in Hawaii, where, according to court documents, the FBI surreptitiously searched Lee’s possessions in a Honolulu hotel. FBI officers also searched Lee’s belongings in a hotel in Virginia a few days later. Lee was found to have with him two notebooks containing “operational notes from asset meetings”, “operational phone numbers” and even “the addresses of CIA covert facilities” —safe houses where CIA case officers meet their assets in privacy.

According to The Times, the FBI confronted Lee five times in subsequent months, but did not inform him that his belongings had been surreptitiously searched or that he had been found to possess classified information without authorization. But the FBI did not press charges against Lee, nor did it prevent him from returning to Hong Kong with his family in the summer of 2013. Instead, it focused on establishing a connection between Lee and the catastrophic loss of CIA assets in China. It was only this week, when Lee returned to the US, that authorities decided to arrest him. The reason why Lee decided to return to the US remains unknown. The possibility that he may have been lured back to the US by the FBI, just as he was in 2012, should not be excluded.

It appears that investigators have not at this point connected Lee with the more serious charge of conveying the classified information to foreign agents. Instead, the former CIA officer is charged simply with possessing top-secret information, but not with communicating it. The charge is believed to be “the same single charge that could have been brought years ago”, namely when Lee was found to be carrying classified information with him in Hawaii.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2018 | Permalink

Ex-CIA case officer arrested in New York for violating Espionage Act

CIAA former operations officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency has been arrested on charges of illegally possessing top secret information, including lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. The news emerged on Tuesday, as the US Department of Justice announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had filed a criminal complaint over the weekend. The complaint identifies the former case officer as Jerry Chun Shing Lee, also known as Zhen Cheng Li. Lee, a 53-year-old naturalized American, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007 “in various overseas positions and locations”, according to court documents. Lee has reportedly been living in Hong Kong since his retirement from the CIA. He was arrested by FBI officers on Monday, as he arrived on a flight that landed at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The FBI criminal complaint alleges that Lee kept on his person a number of notebooks that contained classified details of his CIA work. These included the real names of covert CIA personnel and the real names of foreign assets —providers of intelligence information that are recruited by CIA case officers. The notebooks also contained “operational notes from asset meetings” (presumably meetings between Lee and the assets he handled during his CIA career), “operational phone numbers” and even “the addresses of CIA covert facilities” —safe houses where CIA case officers meet their assets in privacy. From the court documents it appears that the FBI has been investigating Lee since at least 2012. In August of that year, the FBI surreptitiously searched Lee’s possessions in a hotel in Hawaii, where he was staying while on holiday with his family. A few days later, FBI officers also searched Lee’s possessions in a hotel in Fairfax, Virginia, and photographed them.

According to The New York Times, Lee’s arrest is connected with reports last May that the Chinese intelligence services had arrested or killed over a dozen CIA assets in China between 2010 and 2012. There is intense speculation that the Chinese acted on information they received from a mole inside a US intelligence agency, possibly the CIA. But the court documents in Lee’s case do not mention any connection to foreign intelligence and do not accuse Lee of sharing classified information with unauthorized users. As of yesterday evening, the CIA was referring all media inquiries to the Department of Justice.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2018 | Research Credit: C.B. | Permalink