The FBI announced on Wednesday that a US State Department employee had been charged with lying about her contacts with Chinese spies and accepting bribes from them worth tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for handing over internal government information.
After being arrested on Tuesday, Candace Claiborne made her first appearance in court on Wednesday where she pleaded not guilty. The 60-year-old administrative official who has worked for the State Department since 1999 claims that all of the information she delivered was “unclassified.”
An unsealed 58-page criminal complaint filed to federal court alleges that Claiborne knew she was dealing with Chinese agents, and was also aware of the dangers, explicitly telling her relative that “they’re spies,” adding “I really don’t want my neck or your neck in a noose.”
According to the complaint, Claiborne had handed over unclassified economic reports to two Chinese operatives over a period of five years, and had also provided “information about a dissident who was being secretly housed at the embassy” — assumed to refer to blind civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s stay in the Beijing embassy in 2012.
For the information, Chinese agents provided Claiborne with an Apple iPhone, a MacBook computer and thousands of dollars in cash. They also helped out an unidentified relative, even shielding him from police investigation after he “committed a serious crime” while studying in China, the complaint alleges.
“Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit,” said Mary McCord, acting assistant attorney-general for national security, in a statement on Wednesday. Claiborne has been charged with two felonies which could land her in prison for a maximum of 25 years.
The Financial Times has more details about the relationship between Claiborne and Chinese agents:
Ms Claiborne began working for the Chinese in May 2011, one month after a Chinese intelligence agent wired $2,500 to her US bank account, the complaint says. The Chinese agent asked the State Department employee for information on US views of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting between the two powers which had just concluded in Washington.
The Chinese sought an assessment of US officials’ private views on the value of the renminbi and potential US responses if the currency did not appreciate quickly enough, the complaint says. “What they are looking for is what they cannot find on the internet,” the agent emailed Ms Claiborne.
The complaint, filed in US District Court for the District of Columbia, refers to three unidentified co-conspirators. Two were Chinese intelligence agents with the Shanghai State Security Bureau, who plied Ms Claiborne and an American friend of hers with “numerous gifts since 2011,” the complaint alleges.
At one point, she cited one of the Chinese agents by name in a journal entry, adding: “Business plan, Generate 20K in 1 year,” the complaint says,
The third co-conspirator was an American man, now about 34 years old, who lived with her.
The complaint alleges that Chinese agents were able to prey on Claiborne’s “financial woes” as she was finding it impossible to fund her relative’s “overseas educational and career goals” on just her state department salary.
The Guardian lists what Claiborne’s relative got out of the deal:
Over the following years, the complaint alleges, Claiborne’s unidentified relative had his $47,000-a-year fashion college tuition and accommodation in China paid for by the Chinese officials. He also received a $450 monthly allowance, an all-expenses paid vacation to Thailand and frequent international plane tickets.
The Chinese agents intervened to stop police investigating the Claiborne relative when he committed a “possible felony offense”, and arranged for last-minute flights to get him out of the country, prosecutors said, calling this “an extraordinary step” that indicated the Chinese officials wielded influence within government.
An ethnically-Chinese undercover FBI agent visited Claiborne’s home in January, posing as a Chinese intelligence operative. She welcomed him into the house after he explained that he knew her two contacts. Inside, they talked for almost 90 minutes. He thanked her on behalf of the Ministry of State Security, calling her one of the agency’s “highest regarded friends.”
The complaint alleges that Claibourne did not deny providing assistance, but explained that “things are not the way they used to be,” refusing to continue on with the arrangement.
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