- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
A State Department official with a top secret clearance and deployments to sensitive postings abroad was charged concealing contact with Chinese intelligence agents, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday evening.
Candace Marie Claiborne, a State Department employee for nearly two decades, “allegedly failed to report her contacts with Chinese foreign intelligence agents who provided her with thousands of dollars of gifts and benefits,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary B. McCord in a statement released Wednesday. “Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit.” The FBI arrested her Tuesday.
According to the Department of Justice, Chinese intelligence officials showered Claiborne, her family, and an unnamed “co-conspirator” with “tens of thousands of dollars in gifts” in the last five years. The gifts included international travel, a fully-furnished apartment, tuition at a Chinese fashion school worth $50,000, an iPhone and computer, and cash wired to her bank accounts.
The Department of Justice said the Chinese government asked her to provide internal U.S. government analyses on a U.S.-Sino strategic dialogue, but didn’t offer further specifics on other sensitive government intelligence she provided to China.
Claiborne’s arrest comes days before a highly-anticipated meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at Trump’s resort in Florida. Experts say Claiborne is not senior enough for her arrest to seriously color the bilateral meeting, but it still illustrates China’s espionage offensive against the United States.
The details of the case also shed light on how much power China’s spies wield over other arms of the government. According to a 58-page complaint against Claiborne unsealed Wednesday, intelligence agents blocked local police officials from investigating one of Claiborne’s family members for an undisclosed “serious crime.”
“Such an extraordinary step, in a country like China, makes plain the influence that (the Chinese intelligence agents) had within the PRC government,” U.S. prosecutors said in the complaint.
Sixty-year old Claiborne began working as an office management specialist for the State Department in 1999 and holds a Top Secret clearance, one of the highest levels of clearance in the federal government. She served at numerous embassies and consulates abroad during the course of her career, including Baghdad, Iraq; Khartoum, Sudan; and Beijing and Shanghai, China.
In addition to “misleading investigators” on her contact with the Chinese agents, she also reportedly made the mistake of recording what she was doing in a personal journal and confiding to a co-conspirator she knew the Chinese agents were “spies.” Claiborne wrote in her journal she could “generate 20k in 1 year” by working with the Chinese agents, according to the affidavit.
Acting State Department Spokesman Mark Toner called Claiborne’s suspected actions “a breach of trust” and said the State Department is “firmly committed to investigating” the allegations with law enforcement partners.
The Chinese government has not yet acknowledged or released any official statement on Claiborne’s arrest.
Claiborne pleaded not guilty during her first appearance in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday. A full preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 18. If found guilty, she could face up 20 years in prison for obstructing a federal investigation and 5 years for lying to FBI investigators.
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