China’s Operation Fox Hunt: Facts and Theories on How Missions Succeed and Flaws and Delinquencies Ripe for Exploitation (Part 1)

An Air China jet (above) soars upward after take-off on its flight home. On a number of similar flights from the US, a considerable number of For nearly a decade, undercover Chinese identification and repatriation teams, as greatcharlie has dubbed them, at the direct request and under the authority of the Chinese government, have entered the US under false pretenses, enlisted US-based accomplices, stalked hundreds of people, including US citizens and permanent residents, and coerced and cajoled them to return to China to face charges for economic crimes they allegedly committed. This effort is called Operation Fox Hunt. It went on near unhindered by US authorities until a bungled mission to capture a target in New Jersey led to arrests and allowed for the first prosecution involving Operation Fox Hunt in the US. Through an examination of flaws in the development, planning, and execution of that New Jersey mission based on available facts, greatcharlie provides some insights on additional ways to defeat ongoing and future missions by Chinese identification and repatriation teams.

On the intelligence front, the crisis of Chinese espionage in the US and the rest of the West has all of the hallmarks of a sort of ordeal. Chinese intelligence services have unfortunately managed to do their job successfully, collecting mountains of secret and information from the government bureaucracies and research and development sites, private businesses, high-tech firms particularly, academia, and think tanks. It would seem safe to say that Chinese espionage operations are ubiquitous. It is very likely that everyday they work harder and harder to make their networks and operations better and more effective, pushing their espionage capabilities far-beyond the reach of the counterintelligence services of the countries in which they operate. The primary conductors of China’s successful espionage operations orchestrated in the US, and globally are the Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security of the People’s Republic of China) or the MSS, China’s preeminent civilian intelligence agency, responsible for overseas espionage and counterintelligence both at home and abroad, and the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department, Intelligence Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), responsible for collecting and analyzing foreign military intelligence, including technology. 

But alas, there are other efforts at penetration and clandestine action undertaken by Chinese operatives in the US as well as other countries that are as insidious and perhaps worse. For nearly a decade, Chinese identification and repatriation teams, as greatcharlie has dubbed them, have absconded not with precious, secret information or property, but rather with people. (Identifying targets was actually one of the most challenging aspects of the teams’ activities. Without the ability to investigate and identify targets, any repatriation effort would be hopeless. In a worst case scenario, the wrong individual might embarrassingly be brought back to China.) Targets have not only been non-residents, but residents and naturalized US citizens. Indeed, incontrovertible proof exists that shows undercover identification and repatriation teams at the direct request and under the authority of the Chinese government have entered the US under false pretenses, stalked hundreds of people, including US citizens and permanent residents, and enlisted US-based accomplices–private investigators and self-styled bounty hunters–and relentlessly hound their targets. Ostensibly, the Chinese operatives have sought out fugitives from justice in China as part of an anti-corruption campaign. 

In a number of operations, Chinese identification and repatriation teams were completely successful in capturing their targets and bringing them back to China to face what the Communist Party of China deemed as justice. Yet, that has not always been the case. There is a great difference between grabbing intellectual property, trade secrets, computer files as well as actual technologies and grabbing people. There is a human element which, particularly under conditions that the Chinese government creates for its “volunteers,” leaves a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability that cannot be assessed until one sees actual results. In identification and repatriation operations, that same uncertainty can exist in the way that the targets may behave, too! That was the case with Chinese identification and repatriation operatives acting in New Jersey beginning in 2016. It was a bungled mission that has allowed for the first prosecution involving Operation Fox Hunt in the US. 

From the New Jersey case, a few insights are drawn by greatcharlie on this particular case of Operation Fox Hunt that may provide a better understanding on what Chinese operatives are doing via the operation and how they are doing what they are doing. With the color and life of the investigative reports greatcharlie found most informative aggregated with the facts laid out plainly in the federal court document, a somewhat definitive account of the event can be constructed. By highlighting flaws in the development, planning, and execution based on available facts of that case, greatcharlie seeks to provide insight on additional ways to defeat ongoing and future Chinese identification and repatriation activities under Operation Fox Hunt or under some new operation launched by Beijing. Just knowing what is wrong is not as great as knowing how to fix the problem. This commentary does not look at the situation only in the end to say everyone appears to be doing their best to halt China’s malign activities and all is peaches-and-cream. Comments and suggestions are offered, leaving it up to readers, think tank scholars, academics, policy analysts, and military and diplomatic officials, journalists, and students, but particularly practitioners who may serve in US counterintelligence, to observe, reflect, and act as they may. In the essay’s discussion, greatcharlie hopes to avoid any appearance of instructing counterintelligence officers on what to do. It would be satisfying enough to know that some of what is presented here might resonate with a few of them. By shedding light on some flaws in the development of plans and the organization of operators for action, as well as delinquencies in the execution of the plan, greatcharlie hopes it can offer something of use to the US, its allies, and friends to combat and to defeat similar malign clandestine and covert operations by China worldwide. If the matter of the identification and repatriation and repatriation operations is not put right, surely it will have an unfortunate effect on US national security now and into the future. Nihil tam difficile est ut non possit studio investigari. (Nothing is so difficult that it is not able to be tracked down by study.)

After People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above) assumed power in 2013, he initiated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Xi vowed to hunt down powerful “tigers” as well as lowly “flies” in the campaign to eradicate corruption. The slogan of the campaign became “fight tigers, swat flies and hunt foxes.” Xi warned corruption was so bad that it could threaten the Communist Party of China’s grip on power. That campaign has netted thousands of party leaders and rank-and-file government officials domestically. Indeed, Operations Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net were part of the effort internationally in that regard. In June 2014, authorities established the International Office of Pursuing Fugitives and Recovering Embezzled Assets–staffed with a composite of personnel seconded from eight government agencies. In the first alone, 3,587 fugitives from over 90 countries had been returned to China.

Overview of Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net

As alleged in a July 22, 2021 criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division, defendants participated in an international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil and intimidate John Doe #1 and his family, in order to force John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1 to return to China as part of “Operation Fox Hunt.” It was revealed in the reports of investigative journalists that John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 are Xu Jin and his wife, Liu Fang. The defendants allegedly engaged in clandestine, unsanctioned and illegal conduct within the US and facilitated the travel of Chinese government officials to the US in order to further carry out these illegal acts.  Between 2016 and 2019, multiple Chinese officials directed the defendants, and several others, to engage in efforts to coerce the victims to return to China.

The US Department of Justice has identified Operation Fox Hunt as an initiative by the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Public Security to locate and repatriate alleged Chinese “fugitives” who had fled to foreign countries that have committed crimes under Chinese law.  The Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Gōng’ānbù (Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China) or MPS is an internal and political security and domestic intelligence service. Once back in China, those individuals typically face stiff charges. After  People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping  assumed power in 2013, he initiated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Xi vowed to hunt down powerful “tigers” as well as lowly “flies” in the campaign to eradicate corruption. The slogan of the campaign became “fight tigers, swat flies and hunt foxes.” Xi warned corruption was so bad that it could threaten the Communist Party of China’s grip on power. According to Human Rights Watch, that campaign has netted thousands of party leaders and rank-and-file government officials domestically. Operations Fox Hunt and Skynet were part of the effort internationally. In June 2014, authorities established the International Office of Pursuing Fugitives and Recovering Embezzled Assets–staffed with a composite of personnel seconded from eight government agencies. Just three years afterward, 3,587 fugitives from over 90 countries had been returned to China. 

Absent an extradition treaty between the US and China, one might look upon the problem as Chinese authorities taking it upon themselves to bring criminals to justice. However, it is of great concern for US officials that Operation Fox Hunt operatives, rather than working in the US with the approval and coordination of the federal government, instead regularly enter the US without notifying any bureaucracy in Washington relevant to their planned actions and engage in violations of US criminal law. To that extent, the activity has been described not only as “an end-run around the Department of State and the Department of Justice,” but “an end-run around US law.” Even more, it is alleged by US national security officials that despite Beijing’s claims to the contrary, identification and repatriation teams are pursuing certain individuals not due to a business dispute in China or violation of Chinese criminal law. Rather, there is a political purpose to the activity. In addition to tracking down those accused of economic crimes, Chinese identification and repatriation teams travel the world in pursuit of those afoul of the Communist Party of China, to include: Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and followers of the Falun Gong religious movement. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the US. Somewhat less concerning is Operation Sky Net which is a program that runs concurrently alongside Operation Fox Hunt and augment it by cutting-off the financial flows of citizens who have fled overseas and working to recover any proceeds gained through corruption.

Operation Fox Hunt: A MPS Mission

Although the Chinese citizens sought under Operation Fox Hunt are located overseas, identification and repatriation would be a task intrinsic to the mission of MPS. MPS surely has the most complete, up-to-date records on Chinese citizens and tracking down and identifying citizens its officers have honed and polished over decades. For that reason, MPS may very well be pulled into the mix of overseas espionage activities more often than may be presently conceived in the US and among its allies and partners. That same information about Chinese citizens is certainly of great interest to the Communist Party of China and in its hands via MPS. In addition to performing standard domestic functions as a law enforcement and intelligence and counterintelligence service, MPS is very much tied to the Communist Party of China to the extent that its present raison d’être and primary responsibility is to help the Party maintain its tight grip on the population.

To cloak their pursuit of individuals in apparent legality, Beijing has had the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization, to issue “Red Notices,” enumerating hosts of business crimes allegedly committed by their targets. In April 2015, China published a most-wanted list, called “100 Red Notices” that held the names of 100 officials and business executives accused in major corruption cases. According to government statistics, by December 2017, 51 out of “100 Red Notices” had returned to China. Among them, 10 were reportedly repatriated by foreign governments, while 35 returned “voluntarily” after being “persuaded.”

To cloak its pursuit of individuals in apparent legality, Beijing has had the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization, to issue “Red Notices,” enumerating hosts of business crimes allegedly committed by their targets. In April 2015, China published a most-wanted list, called “100 Red Notices” that held the names of 100 officials and business executives accused in major corruption cases. According to government statistics, by December 2017, 51 out of “100 Red Notices” had returned to China. Among them, 10 were reportedly repatriated by foreign governments, while 35 returned “voluntarily” after being “persuaded.”

Interestingly, Beijing’s acquisition of Red Notices on the innocent is surely a sinister practice. It has been a human rights concern of considerable importance in US-China relations. Reportedly, there are ongoing efforts by the US and other countries to snuff out Beijing’s Red Notice acquisition activity. One might say that any effort to do that would be near akin to shutting off the lights in the library reading room before closing. The list of “100 Red Notices” and every Red Notice acquired since that list  was posted, long ago should have served as figurative beckoning fingers for those seeking to defeat Operation Fox Hunt as to where the identification and repatriation teams would eventually show up. Countless traps and other tricks should have brought the whole cabaret down. With a proper strategy, officers directly from US counterintelligence services and perhaps truly well-equipped and well-experienced state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations around the US should have used for good, stealthy, professional reconnaissance and surveillance. That reconnaissance and surveillance would have needed to have been performed unobtrusively and for the sake of those under Beijing’s requested Red Notices, unintrusively. Patience would also have been a main ingredient for success. The 17th century French traveller and jeweller, Jean Baptiste Chardin, (1643 – 1713) in “Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient” (1711), wrote: “La patience est amère, mais son fruit est doux.” (Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.) Further, to succeed, no assistance from contractors in the activity should have been allowed. Contractors for the most part can only offer what the young people refer to as “gangstalking,” “Keystone Cop” type choreography, and school-boy pranks. In one way or another they would have ruined anything they touched as they typically do.

Federal Court Documents Versus Investigative Reports as Sources

In an interview with George Plimpton in the Fall 1990 edition of the Paris Review, Maya Angelou said: “The facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.” Many might imagine the rudiments of tactics, techniques and procedures, and methods of China’s efforts as presented in the federal court document might serve as a source for guidance. They would be mistaken. Reading through the indictment, the facts of the case on first impression may appear laid out in the federal court document in a somewhat Daedalian manner to the nonlegal scholar, the layman. Not even the sequence of events was not made clear. From what is presented in the federal court indictment, one might believe the case leading to the indictment of Operation Fox Hunt operatives was rather featureless. The ways in which Chinese identification and repatriation teams acted as laid out appear almost predictable, given the nature of their mission and their desire to satisfy the authorities who commissioned the enterprise. There is nothing in the document that would strike a reader as something new, intriguing, or recherché. Much of what is within could hardly serve as a foundation upon which US law enforcement and counterintelligence service might be better enabled to construct new approaches to mitigate them. The whole matter actually took on new meaning for greatcharlie after reading a July 22, 2021 ProPublica article which conveyed the facts of the case in an interesting way stirred greatcharlie’s interest and resulted in a decision to dive deeper into the facts of the case.

 In the reports of investigative journalists of ProPublica and other publications, there is general acceptance of the facts as presented in the federal criminal complaint. Yet, even more important, the investigative reports provide color to the story of the identification and repatriation team’s activities. The investigative journalists’ stories offer assessments of principal actors involved, ascribing traits to them, painting pictures of them as well as locations where specific acts occurred, and aiding readers in understanding how it likely felt to be victimized by such an enterprise. Investigative journalists also present moments of life in a way that allows readers to enter an experience. Indeed, there is much to learn from several impressive articles by investigative journalists. By including that information with facts, the story of the episode provides a structure that allows a sufficient parsing of everything involved. 

Xu Jin (above), a legal permanent resident in the US, formerly directed the development commission of Wuhan, China before he left for the US in 2010. In both 2012 and 2014, the Chinese government caused the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to issue “Red Notices” for Xu and Liu. According to those Red Notices, Xu was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement,” abuse of power, [and] acceptance of bribes,” pursuant to Chinese Criminal Law Articles 383, 385, and 397, which carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment. In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for US assistance about the couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted in the US.

Targets of the New Jersey Mission

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Xu had directed Wuhan’s development commission before he left for the US in 2010 with his wife, Liu, who is a former insurance company executive. Xu and Liu, both 57 at the time of this writing, had obtained US green cards through a program that grants residency to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in the US. In the interest of full-disclosure, a California consultant who helped them apply for the green cards later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, and investigators in that case alleged that the wife’s petition for residency contained false information. But they remain legal residents. Using its standard artifice to tie everything up neatly with a legal bow, in and around 2012 and 2014, the Chinese government caused the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization to issue “Red Notices” for Xu and Liu. According to those Red Notices, Xu was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement” abuse of power [and] acceptance of bribes,” pursuant to Chinese Criminal Law Articles 383, 385, and 397, which carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment. In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for US assistance about the wanted couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted here. A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice declined to comment on that assertion.

In April 2018, the Chinese privately owned company, Xinba Construction Group Company, filed a lawsuit against the couple in New Jersey state court, accusing Xu of holding up projects to extort money from companies, and due to his actions, those companies still owe Xinba more than $10 million for contracts performed. In court filings, the couple denied Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation an artifice designed to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. Their countersuit also alleged an extensive harassment campaign was being waged against them by Chinese operatives. They also claimed those same operatives had kidnapped Xu’s father living in China and that they had posed as special agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to stalk an immediate relative of Xu’s living in the US. Although the endangered couple’s attorney had accurately and clearly laid out the Chinese government’s villany, a judge in September 2019, out of ignorance, rejected their claims, saying they failed to provide sufficient evidence that Xinba was working with the Chinese government. A preceding judge overseeing the case, completely failing to understand the absolute gravity of matter with regard to US national security, remarked: “It’s not your ordinary case you see in the Superior Court in Essex County, but we’re open for all business I guess . . . No herniated discs. No slip and fall in this case.”

Perchance, back in Beijing, dismissive responses as such  from jurists of the US court system were predicted. US judges, unsure when they wanted to be sure, would reject what they did not understand or thought unimaginable. Predicting such behavior would presumably be one among a set of assumptions and predictions made in Beijing on the actions and reactions of those elements in the US whose responsibility and capability would be to present obstacles or prevent Operation Fox Hunt from succeeding. Those elements in the US were apparently no more threatening to senior executives, managers, and planners in MPS than the Maginot Line was to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in 1940.

Liu Feng (above), is the wife of Xu Jin. A former insurance company executive, she came to the US with Xu in 2010. According to a Red Notice issued by Interpol, Liu is equally sought for arrest as Xu. In April 2018, the Chinese privately owned company, Xinba Construction Group Company, filed a lawsuit against Xu and Liu in New Jersey state court, accusing Xu of holding up projects to extort money from companies, and due to his actions, those companies still owe Xinba more than $10 million for contracts performed. In court filings, the couple denied Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation an artifice designed to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. Their countersuit also alleged an extensive harassment campaign was being waged against them by Chinese operatives. They also claimed those same operatives had kidnapped Xu’s father living in China and had posed as federal agents to stalk an immediate relative of Liu living in the US.

Preparation for the Mission: What Was likely Raised in Feasibility Studies Done in Advance?

One should never expect China to come charging in with reckless abandon. If it had happened in the past, it surely will happen any more. The efforts of those operating in the US on all levels, espionage, identification and repatriation, and perchance, covert operations, will typically be calibrated, with supposedly every precaution taken into consideration. Vouloir c’est pouvoir. Operation Fox Hunt has been marked by concerted, energetic, and endless activity by China. For the most part, Chinese efforts in the US have been quiet, smooth, and quite sophisticated in nature. Albeit moving into the realm of conjecture, one can imagine how a feasibility study for the rendition operation was constructed and the assessments that led to the project being green-lit. 

MPS in coordination with China’s foreign intelligence services likely studied the situation, and recognized just how open the US was for the theft of its secrets in all sectors and then clearly decided to pour through, taking whatever they could. To date, there is no indication that they have decided to pare down any aspect of their clandestine and covert operations in the US, and evidently they have encountered nothing to even suggest that they should retreat. Ventis secundis, tene/tenete cursum. (The winds being favorable, hold the course.)

Surely, there were several feasibility studies produced on the possibility of successfully conducting identification and repatriation operations with concern at minimum focused on how under current circumstances, with espionage activities drawing so much attention in the US, the situation has not been made less secure for all teams operating there,  and the pitfalls of conducting such identification and repatriation operations with relations between the two countries at a relative low point. Such studies would likely be put before those assigned to manage the identification and repatriation operations in the US ostensibly  along with the volumes of studies done that provided confidence fhst China’s “espionage tsunami” would meet with considerable success.

Imaginably, information gathered for such feasibility studies would be up-to-date, and perhaps would be thorough enough to include manifests of law enforcement officers and counterintelligence officers within the planned area of operation of the identification and repatriation team, with notes on their working hours, usual movements and daily habits. If that might even remotely be the case, it would also mean China has engaged, and is likely continually engaged, in covert surveillance of many law enforcement and counterintelligence officers in the US who they may have discovered were handling Chinese espionage and identification and repatriation cases. They may have discovered that those investigators often display varied levels of diligence, are often inattentive when visiting site, are rarely thorough and at time outrightly remiss when interviewing individuals of interest, display their insecurities in conversation, prone to bullying their own citizens without any apparent cause, and are unprofessional often in dealing with existing contacts. Despite this perception based on analyses in the abstract or empirical evidence, US counterintelligence and law enforcement organizations around the US are not without count, and it would prove to be a mistake to minimize the threat of their presence altogether.

It is possible that feasibility studies such as those suggested had some influence on the decision on the location, the timing of the operations, and which émigré to pursue from a list of those sought. To this extent, Chinese investigators, as those participating in the identification and repatriation scheme, would be armed and enabled with an abundance of information. They enter the US, clearly equipped, able, and expecting to overcome difficulties foreseen and unforeseen from federal, state, or even municipal law enforcement or US counterintelligence services they may encounter. They have managed to establish, in the venues in which they have operated, freedom of movement so to speak. Of course, certain levels of information deemed “ultra-secret” or however it might be described by Chinese intelligence, would unlikely be shared by intelligence services with the identification and repatriation teams. Perhaps overall, the exchange of information by some organizations would be on a “need to know” basis.

In the abstract, conceivably lessons learned are internalized, studies and observations of law enforcement as much as counterintelligence surely are constantly underway in all the countries by every organization operating in respectively. In turn those studies and observations are doubtlessly shared to mutually support the success of one another. What may be recognized as too risky, ineffective, expected by the adversary through recent experience, would be cut away. What seemed to be a more available path to ends, is given consideration, and will likely find its way in efforts to prepare those going on the next missions. Malum est consilium quod mutari non potest. (Bad (ill-considered) is the plan that cannot be changed.)

Most important to note is that whether the matter is espionage or other malign clandestine and covert activities overseas, there can be no doubt that all are constantly moving through a process of evolution. It appears to be a manifestation of an idea, reflective of what has been dubbed “Xi thought,” that Chinese activities performed by government, Communist Party of China, or irregulars must be driven by an energy to push the country onward and upward into the position of the dominant power of the world and one might imagine perhaps even beyond that stature, whatever designs the Communist Party of China leadership might have in mind for that to be. At first blush, these comments may strike a few readers as being a bit lightweight, but some reasoning behind risking such audacious action in the US should be parsed out and laid out for readers to possibly accept and provide a basis for greatcharlie’s suggestions as to what may have been organized and had transpired beneath the surface.

The Main Operation Fox Hunt Players in This Drama

Once fully operational, the identification and repatriation team for the New Jersey mission grew to at least 19 US and Chinese operatives. Nine of the operatives among the identification and repatriation team members of the Operation Fox Hunt New Jersey operation are part of the case filed in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division.

Included in the criminal complaint were the following. Hu Ji was the lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader.  Hu was at the time of the indictment a 46 year old officer serving in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, a municipal bureau of MPS. To be a bit more specific, he was a veteran officer of the bureau’s foreign affairs unit. Hu is a man of the world with a natural turn for clandestine action and placing others in trying positions. Hu gained notice after joining an Operation Fox Hunt task force. Reportedly, in early 2016, the Wuhan newsmedia had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, and his arrests of eight fugitives.  In the view of the Wuhan newsmedia, Hu est a un autre niveau! In an interview, Hu told the Hubei Daily: “Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system.” He added: “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands.” 

Though in photographs Hu looks careworn, they typically present him as a professional, intelligent, well-minded, well-built–about 6-foot-1, well-dressed, well-groomed, handsome, smooth, and confident-looking, Chinese male. Hu is a compound of cunning and audacity, girded with steady nerves. His gift as a cool observer of mankind and an understanding of complicated interpersonal relationships allowed him to successfully carry off the job of team leader. That understanding of people surely aided him in manipulating and exploiting others. Hu’s cases had led from Fiji to France to Mexico, making headlines back home. The work was riskier here; in fact, it was illegal. He acquired dominant knowledge of the territory in which he operated. Hu was not even afraid to be at the elbow of law enforcement personnel to explain his purpose using some tall story, some artifice. Hu would identify himself as a Chinese police officer on his tourist visa. US officials hardly gave him a second glance. Sometimes, it was best to hide in plain sight. Perhaps the best way to express what is discussed here is to state that in his work, Hu could be dashing and audacious, but also honorable and discreet, using wits and memory, acting gradually. He could display a certain gentleness but certainly had the capability to be quite cruel. He had no qualms about exploiting individual weakness. Surely, individuals as Hu often seem far too well-equipped for the world in comparison to people most readers might know, or to themselves. In attempting to ascribe certain traits to Hu given his role as a normal Operation Fox Hunt lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader, those considered by greatcharlie may appear to be mere abstractions. However, as far as one can tell, these are precisely the traits that assisted Hu in becoming a master at his work.

 At the time the complaint was filed, Zhu Feng, also known as “Johnny Zhu,” was a 34 year old PRC citizen and US lawful permanent resident, and until approximately April 2017, was a resident of Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Zhu had studied in Guam before moving to Flushing, which holds one of largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants in the US. His extended family became legal US residents and appreciated life in their new home. Zhu’s older brother served in the US military and then worked for the Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, according to court documents and public records. Zhu reportedly performed odd jobs: tour guide, selling used cars. On social media, he sported a Yankees cap and a boyish smile and called himself “Endless Johnny.” He was torn from that life to serve as an involuntary clandestine operative for the Chinese government. Zhu Yong, also known as Jason Zhu,” was a 64 year old Chinese citizen and a legal permanent resident in the US. Zhu Yong was the father of co-defendant Zhu Feng. The older Zhu, is divorced and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He did not have a steady job, and divided his time between a home in Connecticut and his older son’s place in Queens. He traveled frequently to China which very likely caught the attention of MPS.

This conscription of families of captured targets is a ruthless and effective tactic. Yet, Chinese authorities find great value in it reportedly because they believe it ensures loyalty and obedience. They also apparently believe that allowing identification and repatriation teams to use local intermediaries enable them to shield Chinese officers from scrutiny by US counterintelligence services and state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations around the US. The teams are often organized in what has been described as silos to keep operatives unaware of who other team members are or the full details of their mission.

Michael McMahon, a 53 year old US citizen, was a licensed private detective in New Jersey. McMahon came from an Irish-American family of police officers and firefighters. During his 14 years at the New York City Police Department, he worked in narcotics and an elite street crime unit, rising to detective sergeant. He received the Police Combat Cross, the department’s second-highest honor, for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. In 2003, he retired on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His wife, an actress, once had a long-running part on “As the World Turns,” a daytime soap opera. Zheng Congying, a 25 year old Chinese citizen and legal permanent resident, resided in Brooklyn, New York. Investigators believe he was hired muscle. Li Minjun, a 65 year old citizen and resident of China, was a physician formerly of the Hubei Xiangyang Center Hospital in Xiangyang, China. Li had also worked for the MPS. Brought aboard the team as a specialist, her assignment was to escort Xu’s father from China to the US against his will with the hope that he would cause his son to surrender to the identification and repatriation team.

Hu Ji was the lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader.  Hu was at the time of his indictment was an officer serving in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, a municipal bureau of MPS. To be a bit more specific, he was a veteran officer of the bureau’s foreign affairs unit. Hu is a man of the world with a natural turn for clandestine action and placing others in trying positions. Hu gained notice after joining an Operation Fox Hunt task force. Reportedly, in early 2016, the Wuhan newsmedia had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, and his arrests of eight fugitives. In an interview, Hu told the Hubei Daily: “Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system.” He added: “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands.”

PRC Official-2 was at one time an individual whose identity was known only to the Grand Jury. However, PRC Official-2 has since been revealed to be Tu Lan, a 50 year old citizen and resident of China, was employed as a prosecutor with the Hanyang People’s Procuratorate and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force. She would eventually direct day-to-day activities of the identification and repatriation team. However, as she did not speak English, Johnny would stick close and be her intermediary between her and Michael McMahon, the US private investigator, who was referred to by the identification and repatriation team members simply as “Mike.” 

Zhai Yongqiang, a 46 year old Chinese citizen, resided in China and California. According to court documents, Tu Lan and Zhai Yongqiang, age 46, were the last of the nine charged in the superseding complaint. The identity of a ninth defendant, named Anonymous by US prosecutors, remains under seal.

Among those also included in the federal court documents but not indicted were PRC Official-1 is an individual whose identity remains known only to the Grand Jury.  PRC Official-1 is said to be a Chinese citizen and a director of the Wuhan prosecution office’s anti-corruption bureau. Note that US prosecutors did not charge or identify PRC Official-1 or PRC Official-2 which frequently occurs for strategic and diplomatic reasons with regard to counterintelligence cases. Rong Jing, a 39 year old permanent resident in the US, was Hu’s point man in California. He was a married businessman, living in Rancho Cucamonga, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Court documents state Rong described himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government. He apparently enjoyed his “Motherland” and was quite talkative about it. Rong’s discussion of his work as identification and repatriation team member provided investigators with a wealth of information on the insidious nature and ubiquitous presence of the Operation Fox Hunt networks. Co-conspirator #3 was an operative who on or about and between May 15, 2017 and May17, 2017, contacted and hired a private investigator in California–dubbed P1 in the federal court document–for the purpose of surveilling Jane Doe #2. Co-conspirator #3 provided P1 with a picture of a document from the defendant Zhai Yongqiang containing the name and personal identification information belonging to Xu.

Communist Party of China Expectations of the Identification and Repatriation Team 

In 2015, Liu Dong, then deputy director of MPS’s economic crimes division, headed Operation Fox Hunt for the organization. He used interviews with China’s newsmedia to supposedly provide citizens with a rare look into the Operation Fox Hunt teams. He told Xinhua news agency that the work required a young team because members needed the strength to withstand long hours and frequent long-distance travel. Liu also told Xinhua that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management. He further stated that team members were selected in part for their “emotional quotient” for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity.

For those team members indoctrinated in Communist Chinese thought doubtlessly recognizes his or her solemn responsibility to ensure China achieved its maximum potential everyday. Chinese intelligence officers in the various services likely feel that they can outperform their opponents and overcome their efforts to defend targets from espionage and efforts to intercept them. One might postulate in the abstract that Chinese intelligence officers may very well have closely observed, or may have read reports on how the behavior, performance and professionalism of officers of organizations in adversarial countries responsible for investigating and halting China’s espionage and any other activities in them was so negative, self-defeating, and self-destructive that confidence in their own abilities was uplifted. Perhaps this impression or belief grows in certitude with every review of certain adversaries. While there may not exactly be a wide open door there likely appeared to be seemingly endless potential for action and perhaps limitless possibilities.

Imaginably, those operatives from China already associated with the Chinese government who were selected for the identification and repatriation team had no bad habits–such as indulging in alcohol, narcotics, pornograpby, misogyny, and prostitution–that could potentially become amplified in a Western environment. To go a bit further using Chinese intelligence officers as a model, identification and repatriation team members, while deployed in service of their country, would not be expected to take any aspect of their duties lightly. They would expectantly never display any desire to involve themselves with banal amusements to fill time when not active in the field–one could hardly call any time while deployed “outside working hours.”–or entertain themselves on mobile phones while performing work tasks. One might presume that whatever they may most enjoy, they contented themselves with least. In effect, the team was expected to figuratively display the “company culture” of the Communist Party of China and live and act by “company principles.” By engaging in heavy handed actions against family members of the targets, team members certainly could be said to have displayed the “best practices” of the company.

Despite all of the safeguards in place, team members were well-aware that danger in the form of lurking US counterintelligence services. While perhaps highly motivated, on the ground, the hyperbole of China’s domination of the field in the US uttered by senior executives and Communist Party of China leaders is likely obviate in the minds of many operatives due to the very strong desire not to be captured. Presumably, no Chinese intelligence officer or clandestine or covert operative of any kind wants to be caught due to his or her own delinquency, carelessness, or outright stupidity. There is also the matter of punishment they might face back home for their failure. In recent memory, few to none among have been caught and put on trial in a US court. This is surely the standard and the expectation for all of those deployed at the Chinese government’s bidding. Unusquisque mavult credere quam iudicare. (Everyone prefers to believe than to think.)

In 2015, Liu Dong, then deputy director of MPS’s economic crimes division, headed Operation Fox Hunt for the organization. He used interviews with China’s newsmedia to supposedly provide citizens with a rare look into the Operation Fox Hunt teams. He told Xinhua news agency that the work required a young team because members needed the strength to withstand long hours and frequent long-distance travel. Liu also told Xinhua that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management. He further stated that team members were selected in part for their “emotional quotient” for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity.

Stalking and Attempted Repatriation of Xu Ji and Liu Feng

As the story goes, in September 2016, Hu flew to New York to launch the operation. Among his first moves, he went into New Jersey to reconnoiter the house in Short Hills and other locations. Then at Hu’s direction, his bevy of clandestine operatives began building a network. First, they needed a local private investigator, preferably a former police officer with contacts and the skills to track people down. Zhu Yong, together with co-conspirator whose identity is known only to the Grand Jury as “Co-conspirator #1,” hired Michael McMahon to investigate and surveil Xu. McMahon came from a family of police officers and firefighters. As an officer in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for 14 years, he had served in a narcotics unit and an elite street crime unit. He rose to the rank of detective sergeant. He received the Police Combat Cross for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. McMahon retired in 2003 on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack. Reportedly, his wife, an actress, had a long-running part on “As the World Turns,” a daytime soap opera. Imaginably as a security precaution, Hu’s operatives enlisted a woman who presented herself as the New York-based employee of a translation company to contact McMahon. The woman explained to him that she discovered him through a Google search. She then introduced him to Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong, describing them as representatives of a private Chinese company that was trying to recover assets from a former employee who had stolen money.  Zhu Feng identified himself as the nephew of the owner of the Chinese firm, which he allegedly described as a construction company. The following month, Hu traveled to the US to meet with McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb about 20 miles from New York City. Reportedly, the MPS officer presented himself as Eric Yan, an executive of the private company, during that meeting and other interactions. Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong also participated in Hu’s meetings with McMahon. Hu provided McMahon with a retainer of $5000 at that first meeting.  The two Zhu’s were reportedly involved with his succeeding payments. McMahon’s attorney claims his client “believed he was meeting company personnel” and never learned the identification and repatriation team’s true mission. “Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings” according to McMahon’s attorney. He also indicates that the identification and repatriation team members that his client met at no point mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. He claims the focus of discussions was asset recovery, and they convincingly portrayed themselves as company employees with a vested interest in locating the money. 

Soon after he was hired, McMahon began to investigate Xu and his family, a process which included conducting surveillance on Xu and obtaining his banking information. ProPublica reports that McMahon brought in two more investigators to help stake out a suspected location of Xu and Liu, a house in New Jersey. He took the precaution of alerting local police to the surveillance presumably to prevent any misunderstandings if detected or reported by passers-by. (At that point, McMahon demonstrated the willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. Thereby, ample opportunity existed  for US counterintelligence services and law enforcement to enlist his assistance as an informant or operative. For reasons unknown, the opportunity was passed up.) As indicated by the federal document, McMahon’s activities were initially directed by the defendant Zhu Yong and later directly by Hu and Zhu Feng. McMahon was diligent in providing reports on his progress to Hu. In the Fall of 2016, McMahon sent Hu information regarding Xu and his family. In or about November 2016, McMahon emailed information about Liu’s international travel. Later, around December 2016, McMahon emailed Hu information concerning Liu’s date of birth, Social Security Number, and banking information. In November, Hu, still using the nom de guerre Yang, emailed McMahon to say he had “reported all we found” to his superiors in China

In December 2016, Hu visited New York again. On that occasion, he traveled with his manager. US authorities only identified Hu’s superior only as PRC Official-1, the director of the Wuhan prosecution office’s anti-corruption bureau and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force that includes prosecutors and investigators in the Communist Party’s anti-corruption unit. After that visit, Hu and Zhu Feng returned to China. Oddly enough, in a meeting in Wuhan, Hu confided to Zhu that next time they did not plan to come back from the US without the targets.

Following months of investigative work by McMahon, the identification and repatriation team planned a specific operation to stalk and grab Xu via psychological coercion. It was then that the team moved to bring Xu’s elderly father from China to the US in order to communicate a threat on behalf of the Chinese government directly to Xu. As part of the plan, Xu’s father was directed to tell him to the effect that if he did not return to China, his family there would suffer serious harm, including imprisonment. In furtherance of this criminal scheme, team members, Zhu, Tu Lan, and Li Minjun traveled to the US.

Malgré-nous Among the Team’s Members

It has been said that in zealousness, one can usually find some weakness, some hidden doubts. In China, the world is limited to what is seen through the lens of the Communist Party of China and “Xi thought.” For some Chinese citizens, that line of thinking and a will of iron act as blinders, preventing other perspectives from seeping in. From the view of the Communist Party of China, in the New Jersey operation, a team was being sent in under Hu’s leadership whose members’ minds were turned wholly toward bringing John Doe #1 back to China. In no small part, therein lies the causality for the ultimate breakdown of the New Jersey identification and repatriation operation. 

Interestingly, not all team members were members of the Communist Party of China or aspired to be such. One would think Party membership would be sine qua non for a mission of this type as it was actually commissioned by the Party and given that certain exigent circumstances could arise, requiring almost anything of team members, including literal self-sacrifice. Those called upon were indeed not the most dedicated. The teams and their superiors in Beijing erred in presuming without any reliable ability to predict or confirm the fidelity of those non-Party members would gladly follow orders in every circumstance.

With the New Jersey enterprise, it is clear two team members, Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong were called upon presumptively because their loyalty was guaranteed with dangled threats to cause misfortune for their relatives, some of whom had already suffered by the government’s hand. It was certainly an odd type of fidelity. In Zhu Feng’s particular case, in the summer of 2016, he received news from relatives in Wuhan that MPS had brought his uncle, a former accountant, back to China from Houston. Zhu’s relatives also contacted him to say: “The cop who caught your uncle is named Hu Ji. They further explained: “He will contact you about another case. Do what he says.” Team Members of identification and repatriation teams such as Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong are ostensibly China’s version of the French malgré-nous. Malgré-nous were those men of the Alsace-Moselle region who were conscripted against their will into the German Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS during World War II. Chinese citizens were torn from their normal daily lives and pressed into service not simply as a matter of being under the authority and thumb of hostile power that controlled the territory in which they lived, but coping with the threat of harm, even death, of loved ones also living under the regime.

The Initial Effort and the First “Emotional Bomb”

In the spring of 2017, the plan was ready and all team elements were assembled in the US. Hu remained in Wuhan, managing activities, but he sent in a specialist, Tu Lan, a prosecutor for the Hanyang District of Wuhan. She would lead the repatriation team on the ground, but because she did not speak English, Zhu Feng (hereinafter referred to as Zhu as the role of his father, Zhu Yong, was not discussed beyond this point in any sources) would stick close and be her intermediary with McMahon. The other specialist sent into the US, Li Minjun, as aforementioned, was a doctor who had worked for MPS, US officials allege her assignment was to escort an elderly man across the world against his will in order to ambush his son, Xu. Reportedly, Hu hoped the shock would cause the wanted man, Xu Jin, to surrender on the spot. The age of Xu’s father’s age has not been disclosed, but presumably Hu felt he was frail enough to put Li at his side for the more than 15-hour flight. Interestingly, Zhu Yong, who at the mission’s outset was entrusted to find and establish links with a US-based private investigator with specific characteristics, Tu, Li, and McMahon were ages 64, 50, 65, and 53 respectively. It seems that for MPS managers, age has importance, imaginably equating to experience, capability, reliability, solid judgment, and wisdom among other positive qualities.

Hu told McMahon in an email in March that the plan was to bring the father unannounced to the house in New Jersey and lure him out. Hu also gave him the following instructions: “We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him to find [his son’s] address.” According to the federal court document, Hu offered to pay McMahon in cash for his assistance. McMahon accepted the offer. Hu later emailed McMahon two photographs, one of which depicted Xu and Liu while the other depicted Xu’s parents. Before returning to the US, Zhu was given the task of overseeing operatives he had hired in the Chinese community in New York. He sent a text message ordering one operative to join Mahon’s  surveillance in New Jersey with instructions to “conduct surveillance there for 5 days. 12 hours on the first day, 10 hours on the second day, and 8 hours on the last three days . . . The compensation is 1800USD.” 

To all appearances, Zhu had Hu’s complete confidence. On first impression, an interesting historical parallel comes to mind with regard to the developing relationship between Zhu as a conscript with his superiors, or more accurately, his captors Hu and Tu. Despite being torn from his former carefree existence and forced to become a player in Operation Fox Hunt, he was nevertheless given key tasks, considerable responsibility, and treated in a rather avuncular manner particularly by Hu. In Ancient Rome, occasionally certain masters would depend upon slaves to perform important duties and provide them with opportunities for growth within the society. A couple of famous examples of that are the relationship that grew between the master Terentius Lucanus and Publius Terentius and that between Carpophorus and Callixtus. Born between 195/185 BC, Roman senator Terentius Lucanus brought Publius Terentius to Rome as a slave. He educated him, and freed him after being impressed by his abilities. Publius Terentius would become a playwright known better today as Terence. Terence’s 6 plays have survived through the centuries. He died young around 159 BC. Callixtus was a young slave from Rome. His master Carpophorus, gave him the responsibility of collecting funds given as alms by other Christians. Callixtus would become a Christian himself. According to Sextus Julius Africanus, Callixtus would become the Bishop of Rome from c. 218 AD, and is known both as Callistus I and Pope Callixtus. He was martyred for his Christian faith in c. 223 AD and is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church. Perchance Hu was grooming Zhu as a protégé and foresaw a future for him as a full-fledged officer in MPS or some other security service.

Exploitation of Émigré Communities

Clever choices have been made by the identification and repatriation teams based on studies on the practices of law enforcement organizations around the US where Chinese investigators must operate. Aware of the Chinese government’s hostile activities within their own community, it would seem to be grave error to believe law enforcement around the US could possibly know what the Chinese government is doing in the US against émigrés or what it is capable of doing to please or make a good impression with the Communist Party of China. It is not always the case but to an extent, the émigrés, thinking ostensibly in survival mode, will typically see no other way to get by but to remain obedient to Chinese authorities. Unfortunately, there is of course the other reality that not everyone can be or wants to be a noble soul. 

As discussed in the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled  “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago,” under Article 9 of the National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China, as adopted at the 15th session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People’s Congress, maintenance of national security, priority shall be given to prevention, equal attention shall be paid to temporary and permanent solutions, specialized tasks shall be combined with reliance on the masses, the functions of specialized authorities and other relevant authorities in maintaining national security shall be maximized, and citizens and organizations shall be extensively mobilized to prevent, frustrate, and legally punish any conduct that compromises national security. Article 11 decrees that there will be no tolerance shown for the failure to meet one’s obligation to maintain national security. The article states: “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China, state authorities, armed forces, political parties, people’s groups, enterprises, public institutions, and other social organizations shall have the responsibility and obligation to maintain national security.” Authorities in China understand that extraordinary powers are entrusted in the hands of many, such as MPS and MSS officers, who work on national security matters. Contractors, and even informants, who might work on their behalf are placed under the same scrutiny. Those who have attempted to cross the Chinese government have faced stiff reprisals. The shadow of sudden death can hang over the head of any individual arrested for such betrayal. As stated under Article 13: “Whoever as an employee of a state authority abuses power, neglects duty, practices favoritism, or makes falsification in national security work or any activity involving national security shall be held liable in accordance with the law.” The article further declares: “Any individual or organization that fails to fulfill the obligation of maintaining national security or conducts any activity compromising national security in violation of this Law or any relevant law shall be held liable in accordance with the law.” The furtive work of Chinese citizens at home and abroad under the direction of the MPS, MSS, or PLA, does not need to be without guerdon. As explained under Article 12: “The state shall commend and reward individuals and organizations that have made prominent contributions to maintaining national security.

Unable to keep pace with the identification and repatriation teams from the start, naturally the initial hope would be given the gravity of the intrusion on US soil, that while moving about within Chinese émigré communities, the teams would at least act with some measure and would not exceed what is decent. That has not been the case regarding their behavior. Operation Fox Hunt teams have created great fear among the émigré communities. One might toss on top of that an apparent impunity with which hunters from China act against them. True, on paper, members of the Chinese émigré communities have nothing to fear in the US and are welcome to enjoy the benefits of living in a free society. Yet, as the MPS was able to accomplish more than imaginable in the US, displaying its power and capabilities, there remains uneasiness, fear, terror among Chinese émigré communities from something they are thousands of miles from. Chinese émigré communities are for the most part convinced of the ubiquitous nature of the Communist Party of China and China’s security services.

Chineee Émigré Communities and Unshakable Grip of Beijing

Unable to keep pace with the identification and repatriation teams from the start, the initial hope would be given the gravity of the intrusion on US soil, that within Chinese émigré communities, the teams would act with some measure and would not exceed what is decent. Surely, that has not been the case regarding their behavior. Operation Fox Hunt teams have created great fear among the émigré communities. One might toss on top of that an apparent impunity with which hunters from China act against them. True, on paper, members of the Chinese émigré communities have nothing to fear in the US and are welcome to enjoy the benefits of living in a free society. Yet, as the MPS was able to accomplish more than imaginable in the US, displaying its power and capabilities, there remains uneasiness, fear, terror among Chinese émigré communities from something they are thousands of miles from. Chinese émigré communities are for the most part convinced of the ubiquitous nature of the Communist Party of China and China’s security services. Indeed, within the émigré communities, there is an expectation, especially among more recent arrivals that always close by are recruited informants of MPS, Party Members, planted United Front Work Department operatives and informants, planted MSS intelligence officers, operatives, recruited informants. Memories and ways of living to survive in an authoritarian China are not easily shaken off. Quando libertas ceciderit, nemo libere dicere audebit. (When liberty will have fallen (falls/is lost), no one will dare to speak freely.) 

The learning curve for law enforcement organizations around the US may remain steep for some time as the ways and means with which the Chinese government uses to approach Chinese émigré communities on matters such as returning citizens and former citizens to China “to face justice,” is ever evolving. Use of lessons learned by the Operation Fox Hunt identification and repatriation teams will mean for the future more effective use of artifice, more effective collection of information within émigré communities, more effective counter-surveillance, more effective sharing information and data useful for operations among organizations engaged in clandestine and covert operations in the US.

To get Xu’s father into the US without incident, Zhu coached the captive elderly man on responses to standard questions asked by border inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport. In advance of Xu’s father’s arrival in the US, the defendants Zhu and Tu flew to  Newark Liberty International Airport on or about April 3, 2017. Xu’s father and Li, the doctor, arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight from Shanghai on April 5, 2017. While in the US, the Tu met with Zhu and an individual known to US prosecutors as Co-conspirator #2 at a hotel in New Jersey. At that meeting, Tu directed Zhu and Co-conspirator #2 to surveil a residence belonging to a relative of Xu and Liu using night vision goggles in advance of bringing Xu’s father to the home. Tu also subsequently communicated with Zhu with regard to the logistics of the operation. On the evening of April 5, 2017, identification and repatriation team members brought Xu’s father to a house in New Jersey that belonged to his wife’s relatives. As that transpired, McMahon performed surveillance in the vicinity of the house belonging to Liu’s relatives to determine the present locations of members of Xu’s family, including Hu himself, which at that time remained unknown to the team.

On April 6, 2017, Xu met his father at a public location before they returned together to his residence. McMahon and other team members monitored the meeting of Xu and his father. That same day, Zhu requested that McMahon run a database check for a license plate number and address associated with Xu. McMahon provided that info. Xu’s father remained with his son for several days. During that time, he explained to Xu that his family in China would be harmed if he did not return to China. Hu’s hopes for a lightning-bolt triumph evaporated. Instead of acquiescence, the family stood fast and contacted law enforcement. The FBI got involved, a move the Operation Hunt team was almost immediately made aware of. According to the federal court document, on April 7, 2017, Zhu sent a text to Tu saying Hu wanted her “and the doctor to come back as soon as possible” to “evade actions by US law enforcement.”  That same day, Tu departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York on a flight to Beijing. The next day, Li departed from Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight to Beijing.

Identification and Repatriation Team Receives Intriguing Alert

Although executed piecemeal, the departure of key members and leaders of the identification and repatriation team after the alert was sounded may have followed a prearranged course. As it was always possible that such a need to move fast would arise. Nevertheless, a flaw became apparent in that process. it would have made a bit more sense if team lead investigators and their superiors, when selecting team members, had only selected individuals who possessed certain talents, perhaps demonstrated on previous operations maybe in other areas, who would expectantly contribute to the operation’s success. In this particular situation, some identification and repatriation team members who remained in the field as Zhu appeared unsure of how to proceed, were unfamiliar with steps to take, and required supervision. Those next steps that needed to be taken should have been standard operating procedures deeply ingrained through training. In an exigent situation, the team leader also appeared not certain as to how team members might perform. Tu, for instance, appeared to feel the need to be emphatic when issuing instructions. Zhu communicated in a similar way to the operatives that he supervised. This “crack” in the team selection process was to a degree a self-inflicted handicap and vulnerability that could have proved costly if US counterintelligence services and law enforcement organizations around the US were aware of the situation and positioned themselves to take advantage of it. Knowing that this is how the identification and repatriation teams operate, it could allow them to be better prepared and steal a March on their prey on another occasion when they are in their sights. However, this may have been a lesson learned by Operation Fox Hunt managers and it is unlikely that they would not make the necessary changes to avoid dealing with this issue in the future. Surely, there remains a chance the situation will be the same next time, too! Some Operation Fox Hunt managers may feel on ne change pas une équipe qui gagne!

Chinese Countersurveillance Operations in the US

The fact that the identification and repatriation team received an alert that the FBI was fully aware of the effort to coerce Xu by using his father was reported almost as a trifle in the federal court document. Yet, in reality, it was small much in the way that the small movement of a needle on a seismograph can report a giant earthquake. Upon first reading about this particular moment of identification and repatriation operation, there grew an interest in greatcharlie in how Chinese operators engaged in all sorts of activities in the US are seemingly forewarned whenever law enforcement and counterintelligence services draw near them. Of course, one of the counterintelligence organizations might just be a leaky ship. There could be rotten apples in their midst. However, it certainly would not be too fanciful to conceive that Chinese operatives on government sanctioned missions receive more support from unknown entities nestled in the US than may be recognized officially or publicly.

One might postulate that with so many Chinese intelligence officers–there were reports of as many as 25,000 “in country” back in 2017–and their operatives and informants moving furtively throughout the US, there may very well be specialized counterintelligence elements, covert surveillance teams, positioned in numbers deemed sufficient by the powers that be in the PLA CMC Joint Military Staff Intelligence Bureau and MSS counterintelligence that provide overwatch for espionage operations. The PLA teams, rather than come from intelligence units, might instead be formed from PLA Army special operations units primed in the reconnaissance and surveillance operations and to engage in a special reconnaissance mission. Teams from MSS would likely be secounded from the provincial departments and municipal bureaus, Chinese intelligence elements operating in the US would surely appreciate a resource that would allow their officers, operatives, and informants to repeatedly evade intercept. Similar covert surveillance teams may be operating in other countries. It is just a theory.

One might postulate that with so many Chinese intelligence officers–there were reports of as many as 25,000 “in country” a few short years ago–and their operatives and informants moving furtively throughout the US, there may very well be specialized counterintelligence elements, covert surveillance teams, positioned in numbers deemed sufficient by the powers that be in the PLA CMC Joint Military Staff Intelligence Bureau and MSS counterintelligence secounded from the provincial departments and municipal bureaus, that provide overwatch for espionage operations. If providing assistance to them would actually be feasible, it would be counterintuitive not allow identification and repatriation teams to enjoy the overwatch of any theorized covert countersurveillance teams of MSS and PLA operating in close proximity to them. 

If providing assistance to them would actually be feasible, it would be counterintuitive not allow covert countersurveillance teams of MSS and PLA to provide overwatch for other operations ostensibly underway in close proximity to them, perhaps of a variety and number far in excess of espionage. Such would be to the great benefit of the Operation Fox Hunt identification and repatriation teams.

As part of their mission, the theorized covert surveillance teams would very likely shadow any law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations for the purpose of countersurveillance and early warning. No law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would be allowed to surprisingly appear at the site of a meeting between team members and a target ol contracted operative. No law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would be allowed to place surveillance teams on any of Chinese operatives without the knowledge of the covert surveillance teams. Any alerts about threatening moves by law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would unlikely be relayed through channels from the intelligence element’s headquarters down to those managing the teams as the circumstances would invariably be exigent, and time would be of essence. Communication between intelligence elements and the team would ostensively be confined at the level of the intelligence field managers and the lead investigator of the team. Imaginably, MSS and PLA managers would establish some incognito for their contacts as a security measure in case some catastrophe should befall the identification and repatriation team and through interrogation, the team leader reveals anything about their MSS or PLA counterpart that could identity them.

MSS and PLA intelligence network managers would hardly want some incident with the identification and repatriation team to draw unwanted attention to their province. It would be best to help the team get in and get out rapidly and safely. Additionally, having the opportunity to study and make observations of their opposition’s practices in surveilling suspected foreign operatives or the steps they go through and how they perform and behave while in investigation mode imaginably would be invaluable for MSS or PLA intelligence officers operating in the US. On top of everything, as the identification and repatriation operations are apparently the brainchild of the Communist Party of China, it would be essential for them to accomplish their task. Those able to make that a reality would be expected to do their utmost to assist with all possible precautions taken into consideration. All involved would likely be called to account if it failed. A MSS or PLA field manager who has the identification and repatriation teams operating in their area of operation would have to be considerably indifferent to the wishes of the Communist Party of China to have a clear ability to ensure the success of the team’s effort, and do nothing to assist and actually allow it the flounder.

Much as the MPS organized the identification and repatriation teams, it may very well be that any prospective covert surveillance teams organized for purpose suggested, might be well trained officers of MPS–also an intelligence service with what might be deemed a counterintelligence proclivity, doing what they do best for the Communist Party of China, keeping an iron grip on all Chinese citizens. Covert communications between team lead investigators and the covert countersurveillance teams theorized here would likely be uniquely designed by MPS in China for the operation. If the theorized covert surveillance team discussed in this essay were a creature of MPS, having it take their eyes off what members of the identification and repatriation teams were doing surely would not thrill the powers that be at MPS Headquarters.

Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. (We have great notions of everything unknown.) Of course, it is possible that nothing remotely resembling what has been suggested here exists at all. On the other hand, there may actually be surveillance teams operating around the US in a manner of far greater conception than what has been hinted.

Gnawing Bit More on the Theorized Covert Surveillance Teams 

Conceivably, when not engaged in their patient vigil over Chinese operatives of all kinds, the hypothetical covert surveillance teams maintain a low key, traveled existence wherever they are. What may be viewed as most remarkable about the covert surveillance team members if discovered would be the fact they are by appearance so unremarkable. Anything linked to their activities would hardly be found wherever they might reside or frequent. All in all, they would surely keep themselves to themselves. Yet, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the theorized covert surveillance team is that they would likely be gaining experience and honing their skills with everyday that passes during which they have perhaps been out in the field. As their skills increase, their capabilities and willingness to take on greater challenges would also likely increase. Further, for those trying to cope with Chinese operatives of all kinds in the US, the imagined increase in experience and capabilities among the theorized covert surveillance teams would surely be attended by a marked increase in the degree of difficulty in capturing them. Imaginably some financial support would be provided for the additional expenditures on logistical needs for the supportive surveillance work. As the activity would be in direct support of a Communist Party of China directed operation, a large request would unlikely be made to cover personal service expenses. The honor and privilege of serving the Communist Party of China would expectantly be viewed in Beijing as sufficient reward.

Oddly enough, the identification and repatriation team still did not just pull the shutters down and run off just because FBI agents were onto them. With the specialists safe, the identification and repatriation team members rather audaciously continued to watch Xu’s in-laws home and Xu’s home. Tu joined Hu at the command post back in Wuhan where she continued to direct the identification and repatriation operation while in China. On April 9, 2017, Zhu messaged Tu Lan, inquiring: “Prosecutor Tu [Tu Lan] whose order should I take for now while I am here?” Tu replied: “You communicate with me and Hu [Hu Ji]. I will go to the Commission for Discipline Inspection this afternoon. I will contact you afterwards.” The “Commission for Discipline Inspection,” which was a Chinese government agency responsible for investigating members of the Communist Party for corruption. Tu also wrote to Zhu: “[Y]ou need to confirm that Mike [McMahon] can execute according to our requirement.” According to the federal court document,, on April 9, 2017, Tu  sent an electronic message to the Zhu asking: “Did you tell Hu [Hu Ji] that I still want to confirm [John Doe #1’s ] [Xu’s] father’s status?” Zhu responded, “It seemed that he has reported to the [Chinese Official #1] already,” and added that “I arranged to have me [McMahon] stay there Monday morning.” Zhu told Tu Lan that ” the money I have on hand can only have me [McMahon] to stay there for two days.” On April 11, 2017, McMahon and Zhu discussed–in English–additional steps to intimidate Xu into returning to China. The federal court document specifically quotes McMahon as proposing they “harass” Xu, including by “[p]ark[ing] outside his home and let him know we are there.” Zhu replied that they “can’t harass [John Doe #1] [Xu] like that lol.” The efforts to persuade Xu to return to China were unsuccessful. The emotional bomb fizzled.. On April 12, 2017,  Zhu and Xu’s father departed from Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight to Shanghai.

Discussion will be extended in Part 2, to be published later.

Suggestions for Resolving the Conundrum of Chinese Intelligence Operations in the US: Fragments Developed from a Master’s Precepts

The People’s Republic of China Consulate in San Francisco (above). The Consulate has been a bit troublesome. On occasion, it has been linked to suspected Chinese espionage efforts on the West Coast. However, Chinese intelligence operations in the region, which holds world-leading science and tech firms, have more often been tied to state-owned businesses, private firms, academic institutions, or research institutes than the Consulate. In a January 31, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed James Olson’s To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. In Chapter Six, Olson lists 10 “benefits of a counterintelligence operation” and explains how to reap them. In this essay, greatcharlie presents some suggestions on how Olson’s precepts might be applied to help defeat Chinese espionage efforts throughout the US.

In its January 31, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed James Olson’s To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence (Georgetown University Press, 2019. In Chapter Six “Double-Agent Operations,” Chapter Seven, “Managing Double-Agent Operations,” and Chapter Eight “Counterintelligence Case Studies,” in particular, Olson provides a generous amount of information on how counterintelligence operations have been conducted by US counterintelligence services. Readers are also favored with many of the logical principles that Olson would practice and expound during training during his service in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterintelligence. Included among what he presents is a list of benefits US counterintelligence seeks to gain from a double-agent operations: spreading disinformation; determining the other side’s modus operandi; identifying hostile intelligence officers; learning the opposition’s intelligence collection requirements; acquiring positive intelligence; tying up the opposition’s operations; taking the oppositions money; discrediting the opposition; testing other countries; and, pitching the hostile case officer. Many of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of US counterintelligence are laid out. Some portions are couched in anecdotes illustrating practices used in the past. Each to an extent is a display of the imagination and creativity. One discovers how double-agents were dangled to garner interest from adversarial intelligence services, false information spiked with just enough truths, “chicken feed,” was transmitted, and nuanced communications between the double-agent and his handler were managed. In 12 case studies, Olson finally presents a classical series of demonstrations along with lessons learned. He tells it all in an apposite way. Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum. (Tell me, O Muse,of the skillfully man.)

In fairness, Olson’s work should not be judged in terms of his reaction to the prevailing national security crisis at the time of this writing: Chinese intelligence penetration into the foundations of US power. A criminal strain is observed running through the thinking of the Communist Party of China as it dispatches Chinese foreign intelligence services to steal volumes, tons of information from the most secure locations in the US. Perhaps what the future may hold is made darker by the fact that among its central members, are individuals of immense intellect, making them a far more dangerous threat to US interests. In greatcharlie’s view, there is much that can be extracted from To Catch a Spy that might constructively provide some suggestions on how to address this crisis. With the objective of being transparent, greatcharlie must disclose that on the matter of Chinese espionage in the US it is partisan, giving its complete support to the US, the homeland. That does not imply that a bias colors its discussion. No information is skewed or bent with preconceived ideas. What it does mean is that readers will likely discern facts are interpreted from that perspective.

In Chapter Six of To Catch a Spy, Olson lists the 10 “benefits of a counterintelligence operation” related in particular to double-agent operations and explains, in brief, how to reap them. In this essay, greatcharlie may albeit step out on shaky ground to present some discreet suggestions on how 9 of Olson’s 10 precepts might be applied in efforts to defeat Chinese espionage activities in the US. The suggestions are the result of some creative thinking on what if anything new might be said on the matter. In the essay’s discussion, greatcharlie hopes to avoid any appearance of instructing counterintelligence officers on what to do. Rather, the only desire is to offer all readers its suggestions, leaving it up to those in US counterintelligence to observe, reflect, and act as they may. It would be satisfying enough to know that some of what is presented here might  resonate with a few of them. It is presumed by greatcharlie that Olson’s precepts harmonize to a great degree with those that currently guide US counterintelligence officers in active service and thereby anything resulting from them would not be deemed too fanciful or even recherché. Applying Olson’s precepts to developments on the Chinese intelligence front in greatcharlie’s would have been beyond its scope of its preceding review of To Catch a Spy –although some readers noting the review’s length might sardonically query why there might be any concern over a few thousand words extra. In response to such concerns, greatcharlie has attempted to apply Olson’s teachings to the discussion here without making it an exercise in “large data processing.” It should also be noted that from the corpus of work on Chinese intelligence, a great influence upon greatcharlie are the writings of Peter Mattis. Since leaving the CIA, where he was a highly-regarding analyst on China, Mattis has published a number of superlative essays on Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence. Mattis, along with a former military intelligence officer and diplomat, Matthew Brazil, published Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (United States Naval Institute Press, 2019), a book which is nothing less than brilliant.

Additionally, upon consideration of what it could offer to support the development of more effective approaches to defeat Chinese human intelligence and electronic intelligence collection activities against the US, greatcharlie bore in mind that it would need to be somewhat Delphic in its discussion. Therefore, what is offered are fragments of ideas with the aim of leaving a figurative trail of breadcrumbs that  a few officers in the US counterintelligence services might pick up. Hopefully, after testing their virtue, they will find something useful. Given this approach, greatcharlie apologies in advance to other readers who may find the discussion somewhat cryptic or a bit “undercooked” at places. De minimis grandis fit magnus acervus. (From the smallest grains comes a big heap.)

Chinese Foreign Intelligence Versus US Counterintelligence

Resolving the problem of halting the torrent of successful Chinese intelligence operations against targets inside the US has hardly provided mental exaltation for the rank and file in US counterintelligence services operating in the field. US counterintelligence has lived with failure too long. Surely, a great cloud has covered any happiness of their work. The inability to put an appreciable dent in Chinese efforts has likely had some measurable impact on the morale of earnest US counterintelligence officers. Indeed, the abstruse puzzle that Chinese intelligence operations pose has most likely been an anxiety generating challenge that has pressed those given to believe it is their purview to know things others cannot know. At the top, senior executives and managers must account for the failing of their respective US counterintelligence services. Imaginably, they resent the deficiency. Surely, they are feeling terribly unsettled by regular reports of so much being blown, so much intellectual property and classified material being lost. They have certainly had a bellyful of the failure rate against the Chinese intelligence networks. There has been so much scandal–or at least what should be scandal–with US political leaders becoming entangled with Chinese intelligence operatives, from interns, drivers, fundraisers, to “camp followers.” Expectantly, senior executives and managers should be wondering whether the rank and file of US counterintelligence has gone on hiatus. To use contemporary sports vernacular in the US, US counterintelligence services “have not shown up” in the struggle with China. They may also be wondering, given the array of tools and considerable resources available to them, whether the rank and file, led by squad, shop, or unit supervisors and commanders, have told them the whole story. Perhaps harshly, they would question whether the rank and file were organizing valid plans or going off on profitless “school boy larks,” not remotely sufficient to defeat a most cunning opponent. Against the Chinese style intelligence operations, it may very well be the case that the ordinary principles of trade craft and security have gone to the wall. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” Directors and commanding officers of US counterintelligence services can only come to the US Congress for hearings on oversight and appropriations seeking sympathy not approval or report any real success.

Perchance little has really been provided in any official assessments of why US counterintelligence efforts have been so unsuccessful. Perhaps senior executives are not asking the right questions or any questions. When one is overmatched, one will usually lose. Some enhanced intelligibility in the discussion of what has been occurring would help to bring at least the US public around to a better understanding of what where things stand and the prospects for success. Without that, policy analysts and other observers are left to presume that the Chinese are that much better. Indeed, as of this writing, the suggestion that has frequently been voiced in certain quarters concerned with the crisis, and has even spilled out into the newsmedia, is that the professional, diligent officers of the US counterintelligence services–and sadly those qualities cannot be ascribed to the entire group–are simply unable to get a handle on the Chinese threat. That suggests there has been a complete eclipse of their faculties. However, that should not be taken as the gospel truth. Surely, the men and women of the US counterintelligence services, correctly focused, will be able to gain and retain the initiative and start pulling apart Chinese intelligence networks. The renowned US industrialist Henry Ford once remarked: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” The US counterintelligence services maintain their vigil.

Olson’s Precepts from To Catch a Spy

On “Spreading disinformation”

Olson begins his veritable “mini manual” by explaining double-agents can be used to provide the opposition service with false or misleading disinformation, but this a relatively infrequent objective. Deceiving the enemy in this manner requires tremendous planning and subtlety because adversarial foreign intelligence services are not easily deceived. Very often they possess the means to verify the provenance of the double-agent’s reporting. Moreover, if the double-agent reports that some action will take place in the future and it does not, the double-agent’s credibility is seriously undermined. According to Olson the use of disinformation in a double-agent operation would only make sense when the stakes are unusually high or the opposition has limited means of verification.

With reference to “Determining the other side’s modus operandi”

Olson explains that a double-agent is in a perfect position to report back on the opposition’s modus operandi. For any counterintelligence officer responsible for monitoring and thwarting hostile services operations, it is invaluable to know how the service conducts its business. Olson recalls that when he was tasked with developing counterintelligence programs at CIA field stations, the first thing he did was review all of the double-agent operations that any US government agency had run in that location. What he wanted to learn was how the target services operated. Among the questions that he would ask were the following: “Did they meet their agents in safe houses, cafes, parks, vehicles, or some other location? What time of day did they prefer for agent meetings? Were there sections of the city they overused? Did they incorporate initial contact points into their modus operandi, and if so, what kind? What kind of equipment and training did they provide for their agents? Did they use electronic communications of any kind? Where were their dead drops and what did their concealment devices look like? What type of signal device did they prefer?”

Olson remarks that It was especially helpful to have double-agent history in the same city that you are operating, but there was value in reviewing any foibles of double-agent operations run by the target service anywhere. As Olson explains, the case officers of the service have all had the same training and follow the same operational doctrine. They tend to fall into habits and use operational techniques that have worked for them elsewhere. The result can be predictability–a major vulnerability in spying that can and should be exploited by the opposition’s counterintelligence. 

Concerning “Identifying hostile intelligence officers”

Foreign intelligence services take great pains to hide their case officers under a variety of covers according to Olson. They can pose as diplomats, trade officials, journalists, students, businessmen or businesswomen, airline representatives, employees of international organizations, and practically any other profession that gives them an ostensible reason for being in the country. US counterintelligence is tasked with piercing those covers and identifying the spies. One of the best tools available for this task is the double-agent.

In some cases the handling officer is the recruiting officer. If the recruiting officer first met our double-agent dangle when he was providing the dotting and assessing venues in true name, then the double-agent can provide a positive identification from the beginning. As standard practice, however, the case officer will use an alias in meeting with the double-agent. The double-agent can still provide a detailed description of his or her handler and can often make an identification through a photo spread. Also, since counterintelligence service running the double-agent operation knows when and where the case officer will show up, for example to meet to meet the double agent, to service a dead drop, or to mark a signal, it has technical options to assist in identification. The case officer usually comes from a known pool of officials from the local embassy, consulate, the UN, a trade mission, or some other official installation. Olson claims that it never takes long “to make” who the handler is.

Double-agent operations that go on for an extended period, as many of them do, Olson explains that they will lead usually to additional identifications of hostile intelligence personnel. Case officers rotate regularly to other assignments, and their agents doubled or otherwise, are turned over to a new case officer for handling. Other case officers are sometimes introduced into the operation as a back-up or as a subject expert. The primary case officer may handle the day-to-day operational aspects of the operation but may not have the in-depth knowledge required to debrief the double-agent effectively on a highly technical subject. Olson says it is not uncommon in these cases for intelligence services to insert a more knowledgeable debriefer into an operation from time to time. He continues by explaining that If the primary case officer may not be able to get a surveillance break to pick up a dead drop, for example, or may not have cover to mark or read a given signal. In that event a colleague from the residency is called on to help out–and can be identified by employed cameras or other surveillance techniques nearby. Olson states that in some long term double-agent  operations, as many as twenty or thirty opposition case officers and support personnel have been exposed in this manner.

Olson warns that things get funny when the handling or servicing officer if a double-agent operation is an illegal or nonofficial cover officer (NOC). Case officers in these categories face arrest or imprisonment if caught. For that reason, illegals or NOCs are used carefully and as a rule only handle or support a case in which the bona fides of the operation are considered airtight.

With respect to “Learning the opposition’s intelligence collection requirements”

In what Olson calls “the cat-and-mouse game” of counterintelligence, even the slightest advantage can be the difference between winning and losing. A good double-agent operation can provide a winning edge by alerting the sponsoring service to the opposition’s collection requirements. Knowing what the double-agent is being asked to provide the handler is a valuable window into what the opposition’s priorities and gaps are. A question posed would be “How much pressure is being put on the double-agent to collect intelligence in a certain area?” He says that the range of tasking is limited, of course, to what the double-agent professes his access to be,  but a good double-agent might hint at the possibility if expanded access to smoke out the opposition’s response. For example, a high technology double-agent might tell his handler that his future duties might include research in high technology devices. Olson says the question then would be: “Does the opposition service respond either alacrity or lassitude?” According to Olson, the latter reaction could indicate that this requirement is being covered by another agent.

Olson demonstrates another ploy that can be used to learn the adversary’s collection priorities which was to have a military double-agent, for example, announce to his handler that he is up for reassignment and is about to put in his wish list for a new posting. Olson says the double-agent would be prompted to ask his handler: “Where would the service like him to go?  Where does the service not want him to go? For what kind of bullet should he be applying?” Olson explains that how the handler responds can indicate the services collection priorities and gaps in locations where it thinks it can handle the double agent safely.

Olson further explains that intelligence services do not task their agents haphazardly. The requirements are generated by a systematic process that includes input from all the interested parties. In the US, for example, requirements for the intelligence community result from an elaborate consultation and give and take managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The process is far from casual. Any intelligence service can learn a lot by analyzing the requirements given to its double agents. There is significant meaning in what the opposition service is asking for and what it is not.

Regarding “Acquiring positive intelligence”

Olson reveals that occasionally, a foreign intelligence service so believes in the trustworthiness of a double agent that it shares with that double-agent positive intelligence information. The purpose may be to give the founder agent background information to assist in his or her collection efforts. Another reason for doing so might be that the case officer-double-agent relationship may become so critical that the case officer assumes the double-agents ironclad loyalty and “talks out of school.” Olson also says a case officer may try to enhance his or her standing with the double-agent by boasting about past or current accomplishments.

With reference to “Tying up the opposition’s operations”

Every minute an opposition case officer spends on a double-agent, proffers Olson, is a wasted minute. The handlers time is wasted. Also tied up in the operation for no productive purpose are technical teams, linguists, surveillance, and analysts. Olson goes on to note that It is perhaps a perverse but still undeniable pleasure for a US counterintelligence officer to sit back to survey his or her double-agent operations and to gloat about owning a big chunk of that adversary’s time and energy. Every useless thing that a foreign intelligence service does in handling one of our double agent operations leaves less time for it to hurt us with real operations. In the great game of counterintelligence, these are gratifying victories.

As to “Taking the oppositions money”

Foreign intelligence services vary tremendously in how much they pay their agents, but Olson admits that with the right kind of material, a good double-agent can command big money. He explains that the willingness of an adversarial service to pay our double-agents large amounts of money is a good indicator of how deeply we have set the hook. 

About “Discrediting the opposition”

Commenting generally, Olson says intelligence services hate to lose face. Enough of them around the world have acquired such bad reputations for violating human rights, torture, other violent acts, and murder, that there is not too much for the many to lose in terms of good standing. They want to project to the world an image of competence, professionalism, toughness and discipline. Olson explains that any publicity that highlights their failures can undermine their support from their government and demoralize their troops. He notes that in closed societies like the Soviet Union, East Germany, China, and Cuba, intelligence services were hardly accountable to the press and public as those of Western democratic societies. However, he maintains that they still did everything they could to protect their reputations. Olson says that the same is true today of our major counterintelligence adversaries.

The US is reluctant to publicize expired double-agent operations out of fear of revealing sensitive methodology or subjecting the American principal of notoriety. In selected cases, Olson states that he would like to see US counterintelligence be more proactive in capitalizing on the other side’s failures. He believes that by doing so the US can make them gun shy about engaging in future operations against its citizens. He asserts that the US could publicize how they fell into our trap and how much they gave away to us in the process. He suggests that once they are lured into operating inside the US, counterintelligence services can do a splashy expulsion of case officers who have diplomatic immunity and arrest those who do not. As a benefit, Olson suggests the hostile service looks bad for letting itself be duped by our double-agent operation, and should pay a price for it. It loses some of its operational staff, its reputation for professionalism suffers. He feels that no mistake by the opposition should go unexploited. 

The People’s Republic of China Minister of State Security, Chen Wenqing (above). Resolving the problem of halting the torrent of successful Chinese intelligence operations against targets inside the US has hardly provided mental exaltation for the rank and file in US counterintelligence services operating in the field. US counterintelligence has lived with failure too long. Surely, a great cloud has covered any happiness of their work. The inability to put an appreciable dent in Chinese efforts has likely had some measurable impact on the morale of earnest US counterintelligence officers. Indeed, the abstruse puzzle that Chinese intelligence operations pose has most likely been an anxiety generating challenge that has pressed those given to believe it is their purview to know things others cannot know.

Suggestions Drawn from Olson’s Precepts

Do Not Fume, Think!

In Greek Mythology, there was Até, an unpredictable figure, not necessarily personified, yet represented rash, chaotic, ruinous responses by both gods and men to a situation. She was famously mentioned in Act 3, Scene 1 of  William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony addresses the body of Caesar and predicts civil war: “And Caesar’s spirit ranging for revenge,/ With Até by his side, come hot from hell,/ Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,/ Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” Até has been described as a chain reaction, a mechanism in which evil succeeds evil. In finding a handle to the current espionage crisis with China, it is not a time for a “gloves off” attitude. Minds should be directed toward getting at the opponent to send a message, to bully or even to overwhelm, The requirement in this situation is subtlety, nuance, thinking, not any heavy-handed business. If any US counterintelligence officer involved cannot sustain that, he or she is working the wrong target. Informed by experience, greatcharlie is aware that it is a predilection among not all young special agents in a particular US counterintelligence service, but some, to be frightfully eager to prove something to their cohorts and to themselves. Ira furor brevis est; animum rege. (Anger is a brief madness; govern your soul (control your emotions)).

Practicing what is compulsory for all investigations in the Chinese crisis is sine qua non. However, if one’s thinking is not yielding satisfactory outcomes, then one must focus upon how and what one thinks. A corrective step must be to concentrate to enhance one’s ability to summon up new ideas and insights, study, understand, and consider the deeds of personalities. It is one thing to supposedly see everything–certainly the tools available to US counterintelligence services allow them to see an extraordinary amount of things, but another thing to properly reason from what one sees. US counterintelligence officers must think harder and conceptualize better. They must ruminate on events in relation to those that proceed them and meditate on what the future may bring. They must practice forecasting decisions by their adversary that may shape what might come and then proof their efforts by watching events unfold in reports. 

The question that must beat the brain of every US counterintelligence officer working on the matter is most likely: “Where will they strike next?” As a practical suggestion, the focus of many investigations–if not all investigations–of Chinese intelligence networks send operations might be placed on two points: those controlling networks and running operations in the field; and the composition of operations in the field.

Know Who Controls the Chinese Intelligence Networks

As it was discussed in the July 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1),” personnel of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the civilian foreign intelligence service of China, are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. In most countries, MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. In the US, there are seven permanent Chinese diplomatic missions staffed with intelligence personnel. MSS personnel are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for ten years if required. In most countries, the local MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. Having stated that, it is near certain that presently far greater numbers of MSS officers as well as officers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Communist Party of China intelligence units are operating without official cover throughout the West. (Note: The four key bodies of the Communist Party of China’s bureaucracy at the central level for building and exercising political influence outside the party, and especially beyond China’s borders are the United Front Work Department, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the International (Liaison) Department, and the Propaganda Department.) Instead of embassies and consulates, they operate out of nongovernmental, decentralized stations. They are known to often operate out of front companies created solely for intelligence missions or out of “friendly” companies overseas run by Chinese nationals, “cut outs“, who are willing to be more heavily involved with the work of MSS and other Chinese intelligence services than most Chinese citizens would ever want to be. This approach may be a residual effect of pollination with Soviet intelligence in the past. 

There is a common misunderstanding about the Soviet KGB Rezidentura. While it is generally believed that all intelligence activity by KGB in another country was centralized through the Rezidentura in the embassy or consulate, under a Rezident with an official cover, as fully explained by former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin in his memoir, The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage against the West (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), there were also nonofficial Rezidenturas that operated away from Soviet diplomatic centers. Those nonofficial Rezidenturas had their own Rezident or chief of station, chain of command, missions, and lines of communication to Moscow. One might suppose that when the relationship during the Cold War was still congenial, had doubtlessly demonstrated to the Chinese, the benefits of operating two types of Rezidentura overseas, official and nonofficial. In a July 9, 2017 National Review article entitled “Everything We Know about China’s Secretive State Security Bureau”, Mattis explains that the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements of MSS more than likely possess most of the officers, operatives, and informants and conduct the lion’s share of the operations. For some time, those provincial and municipal sub-elements performed mostly surveillance and domestic intelligence work. These provincial and municipal state security departments and bureaus By the time of Mattis’ writing, they had become small-sized foreign intelligence services. They were given considerable leeway to pursue sources. In Mattis’ view, that independence accounted for variation across the MSS in terms of the quality of individual intelligence officers and operations. At the present, the provincial and municipal state security departments and bureaus may be operating entire networks of their own in the US with appropriate guidance from MSS Headquarters and the Communist Party of China.

There are likely many unexplored possibilities that perhaps should be considered about the managers of Chinese intelligence networks in the US. Anything that can be gathered or inferred about the individuality of such a person must be put forth for study. A constant effort must be made to understand what makes the network manager tick. Using some of what is publicly known about how Chinese intelligence services have been operating in the US from a variety of sources, to include US Department of Justice indictments and criminal complaints, one might conceptualize traits that could be ascribed to those managers possibly on the ground in the US, controlling operations day-to-day, are: energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. Among their traits, one might expect that they would exude a positive attitude that encourages officers, operatives, and informants to do their utmost in the field. That energy is transmitted to US citizens and Chinese émigrés being recruited to serve the purposes of their intelligence services and, of course, the Communist Party of China. There would very likely be the hope among Chinese intelligence services and the Communist Party of China that following the detection of each of their victories by US counterintelligence services there is an opposite effect upon the officers of those organizations. Chinese intelligence services would surely hope that a sense of defeat reaches deep into the psyche of US counterintelligence services rank and file and firmly sets within them a sense of disponding woe, sorrow, and discouragement. They doubtlessly want them to feel gutted.

The managers controlling operations of Chinese foreign intelligence networks in the US have undoubtedly been selected due to their proven mental alertness, quick thinking, adaptability, and curiosity. They surely have the right stuff to be open-minded and imaginative, within authorized parameters, and are willing to adapt. Surprisingly given the iron-grip culture among managers and executives in Beijing, these “field managers” have apparently been given some leeway to use their initiative to achieve progress. It likely accounts for how the Chinese are able to react quickly to any changing circumstances. To an extent, it may also explain why Chinese intelligence services may appear to some to be so disdainful of any danger that US counterintelligence efforts might pose to their operations despite knowing that they are actively being pursued by them by the hour. To be on top of everything, the network managers are likely sharp as a tack and no doubt endlessly study what is known by Chinese intelligence about US counterintelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, concepts and intent, and the latest counterintelligence tools US counterintelligence has fielded. Among such individuals, a solid foundation of information likely allows for the development of viable inferences and strong insights which in turn allows for confidence in using their intuition on what may come or what is coming their way. These network leaders are also likely able to identify any “bad habits” that may have ever brought US counterintelligence services too close for comfort. 

There remains the possibility that the network manager may not even be located in the US. Still, someone must be present on the ground in the US, to relay, with authority, directions from the manager and respond to inquiries and urgent matters from those operating in the field. It could be the case that they maintain modest lodgings not only to reduce costs and keep a low-profile in general. However, the presumption of a low-profile manager could also be entirely incorrect. It may very well be that they are individuals who have achieved considerable success and prominence in areas such as business and finance. As such, they, as a professional requirement, would both have access to and daily accumulate knowledge far beyond average boundaries of the latest events in industry and government. They would know what is important and urgent, what is moving things forward, what is the next big thing, who and where are the individuals influencing events and how to make contact with them and get connected to all of it. In their fields, they may be among the most capable at doing that and may have the recognition, awards, and the financial benefits that would confirm it. It would appear that they avoid engaging in any surreptitious or malign efforts in their own companies or in their own fields. However, it is still a possibility.

Such prospective network managers would very likely be untainted by any apparent or questionable affiliation with Chinese universities, the PLA, and the Communist Party of China. (That does not mean family members who may reside in China would not be thoroughly connected to such organizations.) If the individuals have family ties back to China, there would be nothing apparent about them that would make them suspicious. They would likely have no overseas travel or contacts that would create suspicion. Doubtlessly, an endless list of notables from their fields might be prepared to vouch for them. All the while, though, they would be managing intelligence operations of their networks in an exquisite fashion, and feeding back information to China vital to US national security and the key to helping US businesses maintain their competitive edge against foreign rivals. (If the manager is situated in the US, oddly enough, there may actually be a number of creative ways to draw out such senior managers of field operations. As aforementioned, greatcharlie will never offer any insights even from its position outside the bureaucracy that it believed might result in any negative outcomes for the US as it seeks to resolve the China crisis. That being stated, as stated in the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago,” if one were to mine through the US Department of Justice’s very own indictments and criminal complaint against those few Chinese officers, operatives, and informants that have been captured, reading between the lines very closely, one can find to more than few open doors that might lead to successes against existing but well-cloaked Chinese intelligence networks and actors. Not one case has been a “wilderness of mirrors.”)

Perchance those of a younger generation would say that Chinese intelligence network managers in the US, as described here, as being  “woke,” or as the Germans would say, “wach,” both words roughly refer to them as being awake. In greatcharlie’s view, spying on the US is not woke. Nonetheless, everyday, the network managers place their keen eyes on the world around them and have a deep understanding of how people tick, how they fit in and feel where they live and work, and how they can get the ones they have targeted tangled up in their respective espionage enterprises.

Perhaps reading this, one might get the impression that greatcharlie was attempting to convince readers that Jupiter himself was running the Chinese intelligence networks. That is surely not the case. However, it must be recognized that the sort controlling those networks are likely of a very special nature. Surely, with regard to politics which is all so important in the regime of the Communist Party of China, one would expect that network managers deployed against the US, despite not having much physical contact with anyone in Beijing, would be the fair-haired boys or gals among one or more of the senior executives in MSS or even a senior leader of the Party, itself. 

Whatever any US counterintelligence service may attempt to do in an effort to break Chinese intelligence operations, its officers must be mindful that this may likely be the sort of individual they are seeking to maneuver against. Without the ability to get up close to these managers, it might be enough to conceptualize them, given the pattern of activity and interrogations of intercepted officers, operatives, and informants and reinterviewing the handful of “recent” defectors in US hands. (It is wholly plausible that the officers, operatives, and informants working in the US have never seen and do not know the identity of their network manager on the ground. They may only recognize the individual by code via orders, rectifications, responses to inquiries and requests, and inspirational messages.) If the abstract entity, de créature imaginaire, constructed here is, by coincidence, correct in every particular, there may be the rudiments to get started on trying to “steal a march” on perhaps a few of the Chinese intelligence network managers. Shaping one’s thinking against thinking and conceptualized tratits of de créature imaginaire, may be enough to open new doors. Perhaps in time, such in-depth study of these aspects will allow informed counterintelligence officers to develop true intimations, not valueless surmisals or absurd speculation, of what may be occurring and what is about to occur. In “A Story of Great Love,” published in the Winter 2011 edition of the Paris Review, Clarice Lispector writes a sentence that is amusing yet conceptually germane to what is discussed here: “Once upon a time there was a girl who spent so much time looking at her hens that she came to understand their souls and their desires intimately.”

The People’s Republic of China Consulate in Houston (above). From this now closed building, China directed government, economic, and cultural activity across the southern US. Ministry of State Security (MSS) personnel are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. In most countries, the local MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. Having stated that, it is certain that presently far greater numbers of MSS officers as well as officers from the People’s Liberation Army and Communist Party of China intelligence units are operating without official cover throughout the West. Instead of embassies and consulates, they operate out of nongovernmental, decentralized stations.

Discover the Composition of Network Operations

One might suppose the Chinese intelligence networks in the US, as a primary purpose, unlikely conduct operations in which they blithely seek out new targets day-after-day, although there are perhaps some operations underway that serve to monitor individuals in positions that might be interest and sites of information of interest with the guidance of MSS headquarters, provincial bureaus and municipal departments based on available intelligence. The settled, more fruitful networks that have nettled US counterintelligence services the most are likely set up to run operations on targets of a certain type, rich with prospects at locations in  which Chinese intelligence operatives and informants are well ensconced. One could reasonably expect that there will be a commonality in location for both predator and prey. (Although, nothing can really be certain for espionage is a deke business.) The Chinese intelligence operation will be set up in proximity of a figurative “happy hunting ground,” a high-tech firm, laboratory, academia, political network, foreign, national security, economic, trade policymaking office, agribusiness, and aviation, and energy business to list only a handful. In addition to propinquity, there will be a common functionality of any Chinese owned business that may establish themselves in the hunting ground, and very apparent efforts to create employee links by them with their likely targets. 

Control remains essential in the authoritarian (totalitarian) regime of the Communist Party of China and therefore there is a certain specificity intrinsic to every operation–despite nuance in design, methods, and other imaginative approaches attendant–that will presumably allow for monitoring, oversight, and audits. If it ever was detected that an odd Chinese intelligence network was skillfully mixing tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods in operations conducted following an aggregate rollup of known Chinese intelligence efforts in the US, it is unlikely that particular network’s approach, while perhaps creative to the extent possible, will never stray too far from any observances that would be laid down by their respective Chinese intelligence services. If the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods used by Chinese intelligence networks are really so similar, one could say their operations will likely have a common “DNA.” The adversary’s known practices are undoubtedly cataloged by US counterintelligence services. It will be necessary to more closely study the common functionality of networks and operations. As much information on their operations must be collected as possible. Study what has been learned by allies. Identify common vulnerabilities in every network. Identify, study, and exploit their deficiencies.

As much of what the networks Chinese intelligence services are exactly doing day-to-day in the US remains unknown publicly at least, it is impossible to say with certainty how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their operations. One can imagine there has been some impact. Nevertheless, given that reality, in considering how COVID-19 factors into their efforts, one must again enter the world of supposition in which one analysis of how those networks are not only operating, but more specifically, how managers of those networks are communicating with Beijing and with their officers, operatives, and informants, can be just as good as another.

Even before COVID-19 hit, for Chinese intelligence networks on the ground in the US, managing communications in any direction was imaginably no mean feat. As it was discussed in the August 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign Against the US? (Part 2).” Perhaps, the main lesson for Chinese intelligence services was that it was not safe to continue creating and maintaining secret communications or reports, any truly important documents, electronically. It was the same as leaving an open door to foreign intelligence service penetration. The transition back to paper would be the best answer and easy enough. Indeed, the use of hard documents and files was what the most seasoned foreign intelligence and counterintelligence officers were most familiar with using. Moreover, they are very likely individuals of conservative habits, and never became so familiar with computer work as their younger counterparts. The return to paper files would certainly lead to the collection of what would now be thought of as considerable amounts of documents. File rooms and vaults have very likely been rebuilt or returned to service. Urgent issues concerning diplomatic matters were likely communicated via encrypted transmissions. There was very likely a sharp increase in transmissions once the consulate received notice that it was being forced to close. Use of that medium would provide some reasonable assurance that content of the communication would be protected. Nothing of any real importance was likely communicated by telephone given that the US would surely successfully eavesdrop on the conversation. 

One might venture to say that a likely move to hard documents may have been evinced when the world observed presumably Ministry of Foreign Affairs security officers and MSS intelligence officers using fire bins to burn bundles of documents inside the compound of the People’s Republic of China Consulate in Houston, Texas as it prepared to close. It might be the case that burning the documents is standard operating procedure for Chinese diplomatic outposts in such instances as an evacuation. MSS counterintelligence would hardly think that US intelligence and counterintelligence services would pass up the fortuitous opportunity to search through or even keep some or all of the documents consulate personnel might try to ship or mail to China while evacuating the building, even if containers of documents were sent as diplomatic pouches.

From what is publicly known, it appears that Chinese intelligence networks do not recruit after simply spotting a potential operative or informant. If that were the case, the success rate of US counterintelligence services against them would be far higher given the opportunities such activities would present and given the experience of their organizations in dealing with such a basic set up. Chinese intelligence services clearly work wholly on their own terms, investigating only those “targets” who they choose to investigate, essentially ignoring anyone that may have the slightest appearance of being dangled before them. It is a benefit for them to operate in what could be called a target rich environment in the US. Recruitment is “by invitation only.” If one is not on the figurative guest list, one does not get in! As part of their investigations of targets for recruitment, doubtlessly it is important to identify the psychological profile of a person, his political orientation, his attitude towards his motherland, China or towards the US, where he or she has become a citizen or visiting for school or long-term employment. And then, after accumulating a sizable amount of material (based on a whole array of undertakings: plain observation, audio- and video-surveillance of the places of residence, agency-level scrutiny, including “honey traps”), on the basis of the analysis, a decision is made about a transforming the investigation into a recruitment with appropriate conditions (such as through compromising materials or a voluntary agreement) or about wrapping up the whole matter by “educating” a foreigner, conveying a favorable message on China and the wave of the future, Chairman Mao Zedong’s vision of Communism.

After studying what is being specifically done by a network long enough, one will begin to see dimly what a network or specific operation is driving at. After finding a few missing links, an entirely connected case will not always, but can be obtained. Once a clear picture emerges, one can start developing attack vectors against Chinese intelligence networks with a forecast of nearly assured fruits. Lately, the identification and aim at any networks has clearly been far less than accurate. Do not use individuals lacking good judgment and sanguine required based on one’s own standard. Create the best team possible. Know your people well. Keep a close eye on neophytes. (As touched on in the discussion of Olson’s “Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence” of Chapter Four in greatcharlie’s review of To Catch a Spy, a supposition verging on the ridiculous must be seen as such by a supervisor and appropriately knocked down. A keen interest must be kept on how subordinates, especially novices, are reasoning with facts. A supposition verging on the ridiculous might involve imputing criminal motive or involvement on a party that could not have been part of a criminal conspiracy or ascribing characteristics to an individual who could not possibly possess them or has not displayed them. A good case could be blighted by such wrongheadedness.)

Gnawing a bit further at the matter of using young, novice counterintelligence officers on such delicate cases concerning Chinese intelligence, one should avoid the pitfall of allowing them to manage surveillance work for a case and turn it into something that might more reflect the work of a security service in a totalitarian country to soothe their egos. Be mindful of the use of time, energy, and budget by them such as placing heavy, wasteful surveillance on the street not to advance the casework but to prove some immature point of power. Casting some wide net will bring in nothing but a lot of extra things that time, energy and money cannot be wasted upon. Differ nothing to their judgment. Every mistake or misstep made by US counterintelligence, whether the result of a manager’s use of some clever misdirection or whether self-inflicted, represents a success for a Chinese intelligence network manager. Keep firmly in mind the managers of Chinese intelligence networks are flexible enough in their thinking that they appear to be able to change horses in midstream while maintaining the metaphoric helm on a steady heading so to speak. 

Concerning contractors, by their nature, they are owned and managed by businessmen out to make money as priority. That focus among many of them can be boiled down to the  precept, “minimum effort, maximum gain” and that can be most apparent in how they conduct their so-called operations on the street. As already alluded to here, their “operatives,” often poorly vetted before being “hired,” many times find it difficult in the field, physically surveilling a target or trying to open a clandestine conversation, to be their higher selves. They are often too aggressive, even ruthless, and engage in what could politely be called “aberrant behavior.” Strangely enough, for many contractors, the reality that their operatives display these characteristics is a point of pride.. As it was discussed in greatcharlie’s January 31, 2020 review of To Catch a Spy, the negative behavior of contractors witnessed in the field by an adversarial intelligence service’s officers, operatives, and informants could very likely have an impact on their impressions of US counterintelligence services beyond what has already been inculcated within them by their masters. It should be expected that any negative impressions could have the deleterious effect of negatively impacting a decision to defect or be recruited if the idea might ever cross their minds. It is impossible to calculate, but it surely can be imagined that a number of potential defectors and recruits may have been deterred from taking the first step over this very issue. Recognizably, there is a reduced ability to effectively oversee what contractors are doing at all times on behalf of US counterintelligence services. At best, the managers of a particular counterintelligence operation that they may be hired to support will only know what the contractors divulge about their efforts. Close observance of them in operation, done furtively by managers of US counterintelligence services, would doubtlessly substantiate this.

Those in US counterintelligence services considering what is noted here might cast their minds back to the observation of the renowned 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal in Pensées (1670): “Justice without power is inefficient; power without justice is tyranny. Justice without power is opposed, because there are always wicked men. Power without justice is soon questioned. Justice and power must therefore be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”

Surely at one time the relationship between contractors and US counterintelligence services was quite beneficial as they provided real assistance through manpower and talent, but again, the situation has since changed considerably. They are shadows of what they once were in terms of quality.  Beyond some possible invaluable assistance they may be providing through precious outside of the bureaucracy analysis and advice on Chinese intelligence activities in the US, in the China case, US counterintelligence services should severely minimize or eliminate contractors if possible. There may be a place for such contractors and their ways in counternarcotics, organized crime control, human-trafficking or some other kind of criminal investigations. However, up against the sophisticated intelligence services of a determined adversary as China, those contractors are not a credit to US counterintelligence services. They are nothing but a liability. The China case is too important to indulge in any uncertainties. On an additional point, technical intelligence tools must be utilized effectively and appropriately. Monitor only those who need to be monitored. Resist the urge to play George Orwell’s “Big Brother.” That urge is another weakness. Nimia illæc licentia profecto evadet in aliquod magnum malum. (This excessive license will most certainly eventuate in some great evil.)

The continued success Chinese intelligence services and counterintelligence services in being able to conceal their massive espionage efforts may suggest that conceptually, they may approach establishing their presence in the US with the thought of “peacefully coexisting” in the same environment as US counterintelligence services. The relationship that they seem to have sought with US counterintelligence services in order to ensure the security of their networks and operations is not “cat and mouse” or combative. It is strangely, but logically, symbiotic. 

That symbiotic relationship, however, is malignant, and designed to be parasitical. To that end, managers of Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence services in the US likely respond to any detection of the presence of US counterintelligence personnel or activity not by avoiding them, but by connecting in some smart way to them. Connecting to them, to give a couple of simple examples means having operatives work for a contractor engaged in physical surveillance, or take on low level employment in or around offices of those contractors. From such positions and similar ones, they would enable themselves to monitor the most well-orchestrated, well-conducted activities from the inside. Some operatives, finding work as operatives in the agencies of contractors for US counterintelligence services  could actually become, and have very likely actually been, part of those operations. Note that operatives of Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services directed to get close to US counterintelligence services personnel and activities may not necessarily be ethnic Chinese. (For a fuller discussion of that matter, see the July 31, 2020 greatcharlie post “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is this Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1).”) Such a precaution would likely be deemed less necessary by managers of Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services for operatives placed within or close proximity of contractors offices and personnel as those managers have likely become well-aware of the astonishing lack of due diligence and security practiced by them. Surely, US counterintelligence activities of greatest interest would be those against Chinese foreign intelligence networks and operations. However, there would undoubtedly be significant and considerable value in being aware of physical surveillance activities by US counterintelligence services against the other adversaries of those services. There is every reason to believe cooperative relationships exist among the intelligence services of US adversaries. To say the least, there would be some monetary value in information collected by China of that kind.

Much as some parasites, those operatives who might successfully penetrate any organizations of or pertaining to US counterintelligence services would never act directly  to destroy those personnel or organizations but would rather only nourish themselves off  of them by collecting critical information from them for the security and survival of Chinese Intelligence activities in the US. Reminding again of what might be called Olson’s maxim from To Catch a Spy, “Penetration is the best counterintelligence.” One can almost be certain that senior executives and managers in adversarial foreign intelligence services surely believe that, too! That is something for US counterintelligence services to be very concerned about.

With regard to working with quantitative data, broken down to the essentials, it must continually be used to keep US counterintelligence officers cognizant and well appraised of activity by confirmed Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, and informants tied to diplomatic missions. With quantitative data, users ought to drill down on data concerning their daily and hourly activity from communications to commuting. One must be able to discern even the slightest changes in activity, whether increased or decreased. Data should be reviewed daily to identify the slightest changes from the aggregate numbers. Revisiting data that has already been rolled up and aggregated is also advised. It should be mined through for more details, clues. (One should never get so caught up with data to believe that an opponent’s actions can be reduced to an algorithm. The opposition’s leaders are living, breathing, agile, flexible and–despite working in Communist China–potentially unconventional thinkers.)

Getting Results

Measures of success of the practices suggested here may hopefully be a marked increased prospective opportunities to: neutralize; displace; and, intercept, even recruit, from a targeted Chinese intelligence network.

1. Displace

If the purpose of US counterintelligence is to displace a Chinese intelligence network or operation, the rapid shutdown of an operation would be a sign of success in that endeavor. The threat of intercept or the very public revelation that an officer, operative, or informant in the network has been apprehended would naturally spur such an action. If the environment is made hot enough for the network, its managers and the remainder of their string of officers, operatives, and informants will indubitably go to ground with the hope of resurrecting their network with its diffuse operations at a more favorable point in time. However, if an operation has packed up and moved out, there will be a palpable change in the working atmosphere for the counterintelligence officer who has had their noses to grindstone working the case. In a frenzied rush to exit the US, individual suspected Chinese intelligence officers, working in academia or industry, in physical isolation from their compatriots, or ones that may appear to be operating independently and farthest away from their network compatriots and resources, may no longer see the need to carry on with any pretenses. It is also interesting to see that there is never mention of any effort by Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, or informants to figuratively throw dust in the eyes of those investigating, plant false leads or use other means to misdirect, as they make their escape.

Interviews can be used as a psychological tool to prompt displacement. For the network manager who is logical, visits to the residence or workplace of a subject of investigation by US counterintelligence officer to invite them for an interview in the respective office of their service, or to interview them at that location, may be viewed as probing based on some insight possessed by the adversary. There is the odd chance a network manager might believe a US counterintelligence service was on to something. However, it would seem they would more likely think a US counterintelligence service would “hold its cards a little closer” if it had something solid to act on. If the network manager is thinking in that way, it would mean  he or she has been trying to see through all things cooked up by US counterintelligence. Surely, for the Chinese intelligence  services as much as those of the US, studying their oppositions modus operandi is as important a task as anything else.

Operatives and informants, on the other hand, may become jittery. However, such a visit may not unnerve the network manager. The reaction of a network manager may be no visible  reaction at all. He or she will likely continually display nerve and knowledge. The possibility of such interviews has likely already crossed the managers mind. The network manager has likely already assessed how officers, operatives, and informants in his or her retinue will act or react when approached. The task of the network manager will be to deduce what triggered the interview, reason from cause to effect what is the likely course of events to follow, and act accordingly. That being stated, activities and especially the communications of those approached for interviews must be monitored. New travel plans by individuals with some association to those interviewed, scheduled closely by date, must be examined.

2. Neutralize

To assist in determining where to interdict, stand up a “Red Team” on a non-stop basis, using templates properly constructed from everything known and insights and inferences on Chinese operations and to continue to build up a legend for de créature imaginaire with the objective of achieving increasing accuracy. Among tools that should be made available for use in neutralizing Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, and informants, should be heavy financial rewards for “coming forward”; and whistle-blower-like protections. Casting one’s mind back to the “Chieu Hoi” program used to contend with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, US counterintelligence services, using an approach certainly not the same but conceptually similar to that, may very well be able net a few long-time operatives and informants of China see intelligence services with deep involvement in their efforts, who may have had their fill of the whole business and want to get out, but safely. Cela n’a rien d’évident. (The fact that the Chieu Hoi program was implemented in an Asian country is purely coincidental. No deliberate connection regarding a region, race, or political philosophy was made. The parallel is that much as the Viet Cong, Chinese foreign intelligence officers in particular, but any operatives and informants as well are often “true believers,” who act out of conviction. Similar to the Viet Cong, they are driven by a deep-seeded ideology. In their unique case, it is usually the erroneous belief that China is the champion of the oppressed and will become the dominant power in the world.) In case the point has been misunderstood, heavy financial rewards for them would mean steep rewards. Ideally, the result will be to threaten the rewards structure, financial and psychological, of the Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services. If money would not be the elixir to turn any Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, or informants, US counterintelligence services would only need to pose the question to themselves: Deployed to the US and caught in the business of spying, what else would truly satisfy them enough to cause them to  defect or to become a double? If the situation becomes desperate enough, ask the targeted Chinese intelligence officer, operative, or informant: “What do you want? Name it!” (In other words, at least to get things moving, do whatever it takes, but within reason!) Turning Chinese operatives and informants should ideally take on the appearance of something akin to a business enterprise while actually being a counterintelligence task, if successful. Cela encore n’a rien d’évident. (Note, however, that money can become poisonous in both directions, creating temptation among those in service ranks unfortunately disposed to transgressions. Therefore, its distribution must be very carefully supervised.)

To be succinct, the hope of US counterintelligence should be to come in contact with an officer, operative, or informant with an albeit idealistic vision of China as the dominant power and shape of the world for the future, but with reservations, serious reservations. Those sentiments would need to be worked on. The next best hope would be to find the officer, operative, or informant who is not doing things for an ideal, and whose reasons for turning on China would be venal. Pretio parata vincitur pretio fides. (Fidelity bought by money is overcome by money)

3. Intercept

Non capiunt lepores tympana rauca leves. (Drumming is not the way to catch a hare.) This could be entirely off the mark, but it appears that aggressive counterintelligence appears to have been directed at targets of opportunity versus the industry-centric networks of Chinese intelligence in the US. While there may be a meretricious benefit to this practice, it accomplishes nothing in terms of tearing down Chinese intelligence networks or smothering greater espionage operations. Again, elevated thinking is required. There must be an inflexion point at which US counterintelligence services become the fox, and the days of being the chicken come to an end. Better use must be made of tools available and good practices. There must be better use of deception. To lure Chinese intelligence networks into traps, network managers and higher ups in the Chinese system must be convinced that the figurative cheese in the trap is something worth the risk of trying to take. Psychological operations must be used to draw them closer to targets US counterintelligence can cover while remaining concealed. As part of the information warfare campaign with China, an effort must be made to surreptitiously “assist” Beijing in discovering a novel target worth pursuing. Chinese intelligence services have enjoyed a halcion season of success. They apparently have no intention of being thrown off their pace and streak of victories by what they in all likelihood suspect are attempts by US counterintelligence to score a victory against their effort during their moment of glory.

US counterintelligence officers must do their utmost to go beyond the normal scope in determining what will attract Chinese intelligence network managers. They must not proceed by pretending to know. There is no room for guesswork. Approaches developed must not be derivative. They must put as much time as necessary into developing them to become as certain as humanly possible that any new approaches will work. Any enticement or manipulation must not give off any indication of being a plant nor chicken feed. It must appear as genuine gold dust. Under extremely controlled circumstances, it may need to be actual gold dust! What is left is to wait for the network to show itself. There is nothing else to do otherwise. Efforts to stoke or prompt the adversary will lead to blowing the entire set up. Impatience is what the Chinese will look for because that is what every other foreign intelligence service expects of US counterintelligence.

Logically, it would be a capital mistake for Chinese Intelligence services to adulterate what could likely be characterized as an operation in which every aspect was well-known with individuals of ultimately unknown character, loyalties, or reliability and targets of likely no immediate unknown value and of no prior interest or desire. As senior executives and managers in Beijing might assess, if anything suddenly put before them was truly of any immediate value or desirable to China, the individuals or the information would have respectively been recruited or stolen already. Assuredly, that is the pinch for US counterintelligence services when it comes to getting decent double-agent operation off the ground.

John le Carré, the renowned author of espionage novels of the United Kingdom who served in both both the Security Service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, during the 1950s and 1960s, offers the statement in The Honourable Schoolboy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977): “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” US counterintelligence officers must be mindful of what may be perceived in the conference room as an advantage over the opposition intelligence network manager may be the ugly product of groupthink. They must judge perceptions in view of what is  actually known about that opponent, even if he or she remains de créature imaginaire and how that manager may act in response to what they plan to put in his or her way. Use of aggressive tactics or overwhelming superiority can be turned into a liability by an agile thinker. It is also important to understand that no matter how the Chinese intelligence network or operation may be approached, everything done, particularly if successful, will be studied by superiors in Beijing so that all gaps that may have been exploited in a disrupted, displaced, or destroyed network will be rapidly and quietly set right in all remaining networks. Operational missteps that might have been exploited will be identified and never made again. (Be observant for changes in practices among networks and operations being traced.) In view of what Beijing may learn from an initial attack, adjustments in the next US counterintelligence strike against a Chinese intelligence network or operation must be considered even before the first is executed. In a cycle, this approach to attacking Chinese intelligence networks and operations must be adjusted for each new situation and repeated.

To go a step further, one might speculate that having achieved countless victories with near impunity inside the US, Chinese foreign intelligence services now very likely conduct counterintelligence exercises in the field, likely in a nondisruptive way vis-a-vis ongoing operations, to ensure that in their present state, their intelligence networks are free from US counterintelligence detection and interference and that no intelligence service from anywhere could play havoc with them. 

It is unlikely that the senior executives and managers of Chinese foreign Intelligence services are sitting back and gloating about their victories. Rather, it is very likely that everyday they work harder and harder to make their networks and operations better and more effective, pushing their espionage capabilities far-beyond the reach of the counterintelligence services of the countries in which they operate. All of that being said, one might still imagine that soon enough, in a gesture aimed at figuratively putting some dirt in the eyes of US counterintelligence services, the Chinese foreign intelligence services may spend some hours planning some upheaval that their networks could cause in the US to embarrass US counterintelligence services. It would imaginably be designed to knock them well-off track and symbolically mark China’s domination of their opponent on his own home ground. China would also be sending a message concerning its dominance throughout the espionage world. Of course, despite its meretricious effect, whatever such a potential ploy might be, it would doubtlessly be conducted in such a way that the government in Beijing and the Communist Party of China would feel enabled to plausibly deny China’s connection to the action. (These are only some thoughts, ruminations, on the situation. Hopefully, this should not cause any undue concern. Or, cela n’a rien d’évident.)

The Chinese have likely concluded US foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services are under stress and are bound to take risks to score a victory or win the whole ball game. To that extent, it is unlikely Beijing wants its intelligence services reaching after anything when their plates are already full follow up on leads they created for themselves. It is possible that the Chinese foreign intelligence services have never seen US counterintelligence services get anything substantial started against their networks in terms of penetration. However, the Chinese will unlikely mistake quiet for security. They probably never really feel secure in the US. It is hard to imagine what might ever be worth the candle to Chinese intelligence services to reach after. Assuredly, impatience in any US operation would be anathema.

People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping (above). Given the success of Chinese intelligence services in the US, China might soon enough choose to send a message to symbolically mark China’s domination of their opponent on his own home ground. and its dominance in the espionage world. Chinese foreign intelligence services operating in the US may spend some time planning an upheaval that would figuratively put some dirt in the eyes of US counterintelligence services. Despite any meretricious effect such an act might have, whatever such a potential deplorable ploy might be, it would doubtlessly be conducted in such a way that the government in Beijing and the Communist Party of China would be able to plausibly deny their connection to the action.

The Way Forward

Month after month, US counterintelligence services discover another set of occasions when China has incommoded a federal agency, a private firm, an academic institution, or research institute by stealing from them classified information or intellectual property most often vital to the national interest. Leave it to say, having engaged in an empirical study of public facts coming in what has been transpiring, the potential trajectory of China’s malign efforts is breathtaking. By 2021, it should have been the case that MSS networks were being regularly penetrated by US counterintelligence and rolled up in waves at times chosen by US counterintelligence services. Ongoing and developing MSS operations should have already been heavily infiltrated and those infiltrated operations which are not destroyed should be used as conduits to push disinformation back to China. As for individuals recruited by MSS, many should have already been identified as a result of US counterintelligence infiltration of MSS networks and at appropriate moments, those operatives and informants should have been intercepted, neutralized, and recruited as counterespionage agents. However, that is not the case. Perhaps in some allied country, success against China will be achieved showing US counterintelligence services the way forward. With a long history of successfully defending the United Kingdom from foreign spies, it may very well be that MI5 will not have the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, the exalted person herself, wait much longer for good news.

Whether this essay for some will cause a journey from unawareness, curiosity, or a lack of clarity to knowledge, remains to be seen. There has been more than enough talk about how bad the problem with China is. That becomes by the by. There must be more talk about how to defeat it. The US must move from the defensive to the offensive, and take the game back to China and destroy all of its networks. It could be the case that US counterintelligence officers must relearn and hone the skill of lying before the water course and awaiting the big game. Many plans can be developed to advance against a problem. However, choosing the right plan, the one that will work, is the challenge. Much as with physicians, for investigators, every symptom must be told before a diagnosis can be provided. In a very small way here, greatcharlie has sought to contribute to development more effective approaches to defeat Chinese intelligence collection efforts in the US. Before writing this essay, greatcharlie fully understood and accepted that there are those singular US counterintelligence services that would be completely uninterested in, and even shun, any voice or meditations from outside the bureaucracy that would dare offer assistance to them in their struggle with China’s intelligence services. (It must be stated that greatcharlie has either been retained to supply any imaginable deficiencies of US counterintelligence services nor has it been retained for anything by any of them.) Often in the US national security bureaucracy, perspectives on adversaries can become too austere. Over time, even unknowingly, walls are built around those perspectives, fending off an effort to more accurately understand an adversary at the present that may shake the foundations of them. That sort of mindset, as suggested,, perhaps an unconscious bias, can creep its way in and become comfortable. That can spell disaster. This may very well be the case with Chinese foreign intelligence activity in the US.

With a near endless chain of losses, the following theft sometimes being a greater defeat than the one proceeding it, greatcharlie feels compelled to ingeminate the position expressed in the conclusion of its August 31, 2020 greatcharlie post US counterintelligence services should consider hiring individuals from outside the bureaucracy who are already known due to demonstrated interest in the subject matter and recognized as possessing some ability to present what may be unorthodox innovative, forward-looking perspectives. New thinkers can rejuvenate the analytical process, effectively serving to unearth directions and areas for examination and offer hypotheses, good ones, that otherwise would be ignored. In effect, surface layers could be peeled off to reveal what may have been missed for a long time. From the inside, one might characterize observations and hypotheses offered by outsiders as mere surmisals and suppositions from those perceived lacking the necessary depth of understanding that long time analysts bring to an issue. With no intent to condescend, one might assess responses of that type would be defensive and emotional, and least likely learned. The purpose of using such perspectives is to have a look at issues from other angles. Thinking outside the bureaucracy would hopefully move away from the usual track, the derivative, the predictable, especially in special cases that may be hard to crack. Indeed, what outsider brings to the analysis of an issue, through the examination of people and events and interpretation of data, is the application of different sensibilities founded on knowledge acquired after having passed through a multitude experiences that might very well have thwarted the recruitment of the outside the box thinker. One could say the length and breadth of that knowledge and experience allowed for an alternative understanding of humanity. Such an understanding also could have been sought through personal study. 

The suggestion should not seem so exotic at this point. Even the adversaries of the US would likely imagine the possibility that some assistance from an unexpected source and direction could pose the greatest threat to their success. Perhaps some US counterintelligence services will never brook the idea of receiving such assistance from outside the bureaucracy. However, in the end, the US counterintelligence service which opens itself up to new, thinking, new insights, new approaches, will very likely bag its tiger. Vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prospera omnia cedunt. (By watching, by doing, by consulting well, these things yield all things prosperous.)