State Department Employee Accused of Aiding Chinese Intelligence Agents

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Photo: Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

A U.S. government employee has been charged with having improper contact with foreign intelligence agents — and in a surprising twist, the case has nothing to do with Russia. Longtime State Department employee Candace Claiborne, 60, was arrested on Wednesday for allegedly receiving tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from two Chinese intelligence agents who were seeking inside information about U.S. economic policy. Claiborne pleaded not guilty to two felony charges: obstructing an official proceeding and making false statements to the FBI.

Claiborne, an office management specialist, has served in various foreign missions over the past 18 years, including posts in China, Iraq, and Sudan. She has top-secret security clearance and is “required to report any contacts with persons suspected of affiliation with a foreign intelligence agency,” according to the Justice Department.

Court documents allege that Claiborne failed to report repeated contacts over the past five years with two Chinese businessmen believed to be gathering information for the Chinese government. In 2011, one of the men wired $2,500 to Claiborne’s bank account, then he asked for information about the U.S. government’s internal analysis of economic negotiations with Beijing. When she offered publicly available information, one of the agents responded, “What they are looking for is what they cannot find on the Internet,” the L.A. Times reports.

The affidavit says that Claiborne wrote in her journal that she could “generate 20k in one year” by working with the agents. She allegedly received other cash payments, but most of the gifts went to a young male relative identified only as “Conspirator A.” The agents arranged to pay for the man’s tuition at a fashion school in Shanghai, and he was provided with a fully furnished apartment and a monthly stipend. When the student committed an unspecified “serious crime,” the agents allegedly blocked police from investigating and arranged for his return to the U.S.

Authorities say Claiborne expressed concerns about the relationship, telling the student to cut ties with the agents. “I really don’t want my neck or your neck in a noose regarding another party/person that has made this possible for you,” she wrote to him.

Two months ago, an undercover FBI agent posing as a Chinese intelligence agent approached Claiborne, and she invited him into her home. She refused to help him, but allegedly acknowledged her relationship with the two Chinese agents.

Officials say Claiborne was arrested on Tuesday after admitting to providing the Chinese with internal U.S. government perspectives on U.S.-China relations, as well as information about a dissident being secretly housed at the U.S. embassy in Beijing in April and May 2012. That person was not identified, but that’s when dissident Chen Guangcheng was staying at the embassy, and Politico notes that Claiborne was in China at the time. Claiborne reportedly said she knew the men were seeking information on behalf of the Chinese government, but she only provided them with unclassified information.

If convicted, Claiborne faces up to 25 years in prison.

State Department Employee Accused of Aiding Chinese Spies