Interestingly, the revelation was made by far-Left Politico in the news firm’s magazine, but it was buried in a much larger story of how both Russia and China are increasingly targeting Silicon Valley, using non-traditional methods of espionage in order to steal trade and technology secrets from the world’s most innovative companies.
The magazine reported in its online edition:
Former intelligence officials told me that Chinese intelligence once recruited a staff member at a California office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and the source reported back to China about local politics.
Later in the article, Politico reported that “according to four former intelligence officials,” a staffer in Feinstein’s San Francisco field office regularly reported back to Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s intelligence agency in the 2000s. The person was eventually fired but was a liaison with the Chinese community in the city.
U.S. intelligence officials said that the suspected informant was being “run” out of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. (Related: Wait, WHAT? FBI Director Wray says CHINA, not RUSSIA, ‘most significant threat’ to U.S.)
And that’s it. That’s the limit of the story’s coverage of an incident that should very much concern every single American regardless of political persuasion for this reason alone: Feinstein has long been a top-ranking member of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, a panel that routinely deals with classified information.
After the Politico report, there was a trickle of coverage from other news outlets, but most of the coverage was local. For instance, CBS SF Bay Area reported that the spy worked on Feinstein’s staff for two decades and served as her personal driver. The local news station also reported that the FBI alerted Feinstein to the spy five years ago, but we’re just now learning about it.
The San Francisco Chronicle followed that report with one of its own, adding that the staffer ran errands for Feinstein’s office and served as a liaison to the local Chinese community. He also attended Chinese consulate functions on behalf of the Democratic senator.
But the paper also offered a counterpoint to the general “Chinese spy” narrative: It could be the asset was an unwitting one. The paper noted that “the intrigue” began several years earlier when the staffer visited Asia to see relatives and was befriended by someone who remained in contact with him as he made subsequent visits. That person was connected to China’s MSS, according to intelligence officials.
“He didn’t even know what was happening – that he was being recruited,” a source told the paper. “He just thought it was some friend.”
Either way, U.S. intelligence is fairly certain Feinstein’s staffer was targeted by China because of her position on the Senate Intelligence Committee. They believe Chinese intelligence hoped that the staffer/mole might be able to glean bits of information that Feinstein may have felt comfortable in briefing those in her office.
Jeff Harp, a former counter-espionage FBI agent in the Bay Area, offered some additional views. He told CBS SF Bay Area that even though congressional intelligence committee members are trained about what they can and cannot say and when they can say it, if someone is driving you around for 20 years they’d be around to pick up key information if the lawmaker misspoke.
In addition to intelligence, Harp said that the Chinese “have an interest in the economy here” in the Bay Area. “What’s being developed in Silicon Valley that has dual-use technology” that can be used in the civilian and military sectors.
Either way, this story should be front page news and leading networks for days. If Feinstein wasn’t a leading Democrat, it would be.
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