The FBI has recently announced that China represents the “greatest espionage threat” to this country over the next decade. Media stories about Chinese thefts of sensitive military technologies, commercial secrets, and even proprietary corporate data are almost commonplace. Yet, the government seems to have a difficult time successfully prosecuting Chinese spies. Most cases over the past two decades have ended inconclusively without a major conviction.
A strange story out of Phoenix, Arizona, might explain some of the difficulties the Bureau has had catching Chinese spies. The Associated Press’ John Solomon recently reported that the Justice Department is looking into allegations that some FBI agents have profited from counterintelligence and counter-terrorism investigations. The department’s Inspector General, according to Solomon, is examining the business dealings of several agents from the FBI’s Phoenix Field Office. Solomon reported that court documents allege that some agents and their “assets” were doing business deals with China at the same time the Bureau was investigating China’s illegal acquisitions of sensitive technologies.
Solomon reported that some agents may have taken over and profited from front companies originally set up to support undercover investigations. Another account, published in the Arizona Republic, has the IG investigation trying to determine whether agents misused their position and their informants for personal gain. FBI policies regarding the use of informants have been under close scrutiny since the revelations about its handling of a suspected Chinese-American double agent in Los Angeles.
The IG investigation was initiated after Arizona freelance journalist Don Devereux charged that he had uncovered financial illegalities on the part of some Phoenix-based agents. The case is also entangled with allegations by Arizona businessman Harry Ellen. Ellen converted to Islam in the early 1990s and later agreed to work with the Bureau against suspected Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Ellen charges that the FBI also targeted him against a Chinese businesswoman, suspected by the Bureau of being an intelligence agent.
Ellen, who was married at the time, became romantically involved with the woman. When he refused to break off the relationship, he alleges that the Bureau “outed him” as an undercover agent. He told the Washington Post last spring that shortly thereafter he received a death threat from Hamas. At least some of the allegations about financial improprieties come from Ellen.
Freelance journalist Devereux says that he gave the FBI evidence that several agents had international business deals with the Chinese in the mid-1990s. The AP says that the FBI “blew him off.” The AP says that some Arizona politicians, including Senator John McCain, have called for a federal investigation. In the Los Angeles case, two senior FBI agents admitted to long-running sexual affairs with the suspected double agent. Whatever the outcome of these cases, these reports seem to raise further questions of the Bureau’s handling of Chinese spies.