Was She a Spy? Probably Not
April 5, 2019
Recent reports of a Chinese woman entering Mar-a-Lago under false pretenses raise concerns about access, physical security, influence peddling, and espionage. Let's examine the pros and cons of her being an agent.
- This was amateurish. China's Ministry of State Security is not amateurish. A professional operation would most likely have used an indirect approach, such as traducing Mar-a-Lago staff or hiring an American. It would be easy for example, for a Chinese agent to hire a private eye saying he or she had suspicions about a family member's activity at the club and getting the person to undertake some kind of operation, perhaps presented as acquiring evidence for a divorce case. It's a nice cover story since it justifies the need for secrecy.
- There are easier ways to infiltrate. If the goal was to get malware into Mar-a-Lago networks (the suspect had a thumb drive with malware), basic network hacking is still best. Phishing almost always works—send an email to the club entitled "Question about Bill" asking them to open some document, and you are in. If phishing or hacking didn't work, you could pay a staff member to insert the thumb drive, or you could use the club's wi-fi network (and you might not even have to enter the building). No need to send an agent into the building in the hopes they find an unguarded computer.
- China's leadership does not want to derail the trade talks. The tariffs are pinching; China is close to a deal that favors them more than the United States, so they would not want an amateur operation to upset this. In some instances, one faction in a government will use this kind of easily detected action to undermine a policy or agreement they dislike, but it is hard to see what faction China would want to stop agreement.
- Chinese espionage operations are expanding. Judging by the reports from Western intelligence agencies (not just the United States), part of President Xi's effort to return China to a dominant global position involves a major expansion of espionage activity. While most of this is aimed at gaining commercial and technological advantage, China (like any other major power), also engages in "conventional" politico-military espionage.
- China has a massive influence operations campaign, blending coercion and pecuniary inducements to undercut opposition to China's rise, create more favorable public attitudes toward China, and give it greater political heft in influencing other countries policies. Winning influence is a challenge for a Leninist government with massive reeducation camps and a habit of using coercive tactics to punish countries that offend it, but there many in the West who will yield to financial incentives. The Chinese understanding of Western societies is still imperfect (some in China think that "House of Cards" is a documentary), so some level of the Chinese government may have conceived that infiltrating the club was a good idea.
- China uses "espionage entrepreneurs." These are private citizens who undertake collection or influence operations at the behest of the government. Others undertake action with the expectation that if they succeed, they will be rewarded upon their return to China. This is usually aimed at technical or commercial espionage, but it is possible that private citizens with a limited understanding of how Western politics works may have undertaken this with government approval.
- Our opponents have less respect for the United States, best exemplified by the Internet Research Agency sending someone to stand outside the White House in 2016 holding a sign that said, "Happy Birthday Boss," to congratulate the head of the agency. The United States is mocked, and its openness used against it. If there were discussions in the trade talks of withdrawing indictments against Huawei executives, this might have been interpreted as the United States backing down, a perception that in the past has led countries to test America (the GitHub hack is an example) by taking a bolder step, on the theory that they can get away with more than they had thought.
Taking all this into account, the factor most likely to explain what did or did not happen is protecting the trade talks. With an agreement so close, one that China reportedly will see as favorable, it is difficult to believe that China's leadership would risk this by a ham-handed stunt. It’s more likely that the detained individual was blundering about in pursuit of guanxi, the Chinese term for building important and beneficial personal connections and networks. If this woman was a spy, she was a remarkably bad one.
James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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