The FBI has arrested a State Department official who is charged with concealing extensive contacts with China's intelligence service.
Candace Marie Claiborne, an office management specialist who held a top-secret security clearance, faces charges of obstructing an FBI probe and making false statements about years-long contacts with two Chinese intelligence agents.
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Claiborne, 60, worked for the State Department since 1999 and was posted at the headquarters in Washington, as well as U.S. diplomatic posts in Beijing and Shanghai, along with posts in Baghdad and Khartoum, Sudan.
A criminal complaint in the case said she conspired with two Chinese intelligence agents working for the Shanghai State Security Bureau. She also worked with a fourth person who is a male U.S. citizen and relative of Claiborne's who was not identified by name but labeled "Co-conspirator A" in court papers.
The case is one of the first Chinese espionage-related operations involving a U.S. citizen to surface in nearly 10 years.
Other recent illegal intelligence activity by the Chinese government mainly has involved illicit acquisition of U.S. technology.
Disclosure of the Chinese intelligence operation targeting a State Department official with access to secrets comes a week before President Trump is set to meet China's leader Xi Jinping in Florida.
U.S.-China relations remain strained over Chinese hacking of U.S. government and private sector computers and China's maritime claims to control areas of the South China Sea and East China Sea.
The charges against Claiborne were filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.
Claiborne pleaded not guilty on Wednesday during a hearing before Magistrate Judge Robin M. Meriweather. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for April 18.
If convicted, Claiborne faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for obstruction of justice and five years in prison for making false statements to the FBI.
The FBI counterintelligence investigation revealed that Claiborne was coopted into working with Chinese intelligence beginning around 2010 in exchange for cash and gifts.
Claiborne was first posted to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1999. She remained there until June 2003 when she moved to Shanghai.
The person identified as "Co-conspirator A" lived with Claiborne when she was posted to Shanghai.
After a stint in Baghdad, Claiborne returned to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in November 2009 and remained there until 2012.
The complaint states that Claiborne received a task from one of the Chinese intelligence agents in May 2011 and failed to report it as required under security rules.
The task came a month after the Chinese spy wired $2,500 to Claiborne's bank account in the United States.
The agent sought information from Claiborne on "internal United States government positions on matters of U.S.-Sino relations," specifically the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, high-level U.S.-China talks launched by the Obama administration, the complaint said.
Chinese intelligence also sought information from Claiborne on what pressure the U.S. government planned to put on China and the "internal attitudes" of senior U.S. officials, according to the complaint.
Claiborne held meetings with the Chinese agents and used a Chinese social media application to communicate covertly with the agents.
"Claiborne appeared motivated by the profitable nature of her information-sharing relationship with the [People's Republic of China intelligence service] agents," the complaint says, adding that her journal indicated she could make $20,000 a year working for the spy service.
The FBI alleges Claiborne received gifts and benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars from the Chinese.
Claiborne supported the unidentified co-conspirator by paying college tuition for the person in China.
The complaint quotes Claiborne, apparently from surveillance, as telling Co-conspirator A that she was concerned about the risks of illegally working with Chinese intelligence.
"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 was quoted as saying, apparently from an intercepted email.
Claiborne did not disclose the contacts with Chinese intelligence during her five-year security clearance renewal and misled State Department security and FBI officials.
Some time around 2014, an FBI undercover agent posing as a Chinese intelligence officer contacted Claiborne and told her that the Ministry of State Security, China's civilian spy service, considered her one of the agency's "highest regarded" friends.
Among the gifts and benefits she received between 2010 and 2014 were thousands of dollars in cash, jewelry, slippers, meals, an Apple computer, and travel expenses.
A search of Claiborne's journal in 2015 revealed the contacts with Chinese intelligence and the payments.
Both Claiborne and Co-conspirator A were questioned and searched by Customs and Border Protection agents after returning from China, searches that raised suspicions they were under surveillance by U.S. authorities.
The FBI questioned Claiborne in August 2016 when she denied having any foreign government contacts while in China and also made other statements that led to the false statement charges.
In January, an ethnically Chinese FBI undercover agent talked to Claiborne while posing as a Chinese spy.
On Tuesday, she returned to the FBI office in Washington and acknowledged the relationship with the two Chinese intelligence officers, the complaint says. "Claiborne admitted to passing information to [the two Chinese agents], both orally and in writing but insisted she always provided unclassified information," the complaint said.
"Candace Claiborne is accused of violating her oath of office as a State Department employee, who was entrusted with Top Secret information when she purposefully misled federal investigators about her significant and repeated interactions with foreign contacts," said Andrew W. Vale, assistant FBI director of the Washington Field Office.
"The FBI will continue to investigate individuals who, though required by law, fail to report foreign contacts, which is a key indicator of potential insider threats posed by those in positions of public trust," he said in a statement.
Added Mary B. McCord, acting assistant attorney general for national security: "Candace Marie Claiborne is a U.S. State Department employee who possesses a Top Secret security clearance and allegedly failed to report her contacts with Chinese foreign intelligence agents who provided her with thousands of dollars of gifts and benefits.
"Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit," she added.