Chinese Spies in US Law Enforcement - And Everywhere Else

The regular counterintelligence chat with William Tucker is a day late but full of new Chinese espionage activity in the NYPD, the EU, and beyond. We also touch on intelligence history and why literature from the Middle Ages or beyond is not only fascinating but still relevant.

Chinese Spies in US Law Enforcement - And Everywhere Else

Certainly! Here is a transcript based on the description of the podcast episode:

Episode: 117

Host: John Little

Guest: William Tucker

Music Plays

0:16 - John Little:
Welcome to Covert Contact from Blogs of War, where your host, John Little, takes a deep dive into the national security, intelligence, and technology stories that are shaping our world.

0:38 - John Little:
Alright, welcome to Covert Contact, Episode 117. I am your host, John Little. You might have noticed there's a new introduction to the program today. I worked with Ben Sperling, the original announcer, to redo that. I wanted to tighten it up, make it a little bit shorter, a little bit fresher. There was some outdated information in the earlier voiceover that we needed to refresh. Highly recommend working with Ben; he made the process really easy. We turned it around in just a few hours. You can find him at

1:18 - John Little:
Today is Friday, but we had to delay the typical Thursday evening counterintelligence chat with William Tucker by a day due to some conflicts. But he is back, and we have a lot to talk about.

1:33 - William Tucker:
Oh, as always, thanks for having me. It's been a busy week. China is kind of all over the place again but different kinds of stories this week. I guess one of the biggest ones is an NYPD officer was nabbed acting as an agent for the Chinese, developing intelligence sources in the Tibetan community, monitoring the Tibetan community and the Chinese community in his region. You know, I think a lot of people were surprised to see that it was an NYPD officer, but that's actually, if you're thinking about it from the Chinese perspective, that's a really, really good target for them.

2:14 - John Little:
Yeah, you know, one of the things that's really interesting about NYPD is that they actually have an international reach. For those of you familiar with terrorism, some of the terrorist attacks in London over the past decade or so, NYPD was the first foreign law enforcement agency on the scene for some of these attacks over there. That just gives you an idea of how extensive their liaison branch is. They've also worked with the U.S. intelligence community, which is obviously mostly federal agencies. It's what we call the intel community. I know we have things like fusion centers that integrate state and local law enforcement into a broader threat picture. But with NYPD, it's more of a direct connection with some of these agencies, so it's kind of interesting to see this kind of a case.

3:16 - William Tucker:
However, this guy, this insider, wasn't just monitoring the Tibetan community, even though he's ethnically Tibetan himself. He was also acting as an access agent. By that, I mean he was helping the PRC gain access to some of his higher-ups, kind of acting as an intermediary. Not necessarily to recruit, although he was doing some spotting as well, from the indictment. But he was just setting up meetings, making sure his handlers had access to some of those higher-ups, some of those people that set policy. So this is a good catch. There's going to be a lot of damage there, but it shows you that it's not always about economic or industrial espionage. There's also the traditional approach that China uses.

4:19 - John Little:
Yeah, this is your classic stuff. Just to reiterate, NYPD stands alone when it comes to police forces and their connection to the U.S. intelligence community and their international reach. Obviously, all that sprung up out of 9/11. It's a really attractive target, and the damage there could be more significant than a lot of people think.

4:48 - William Tucker:
Yeah, you know, New York is also a global financial center, and anything that NYPD touches in there is going to be across the board of what happens in New York. So it's not just your pickpockets or your everyday crime. There's going to be a lot of other things that NYPD is going to touch that is of interest to foreign intelligence services. This is a good get, and hopefully, it kind of wakes a few people up to understand that insider threats can be quite broad in their target set.

5:36 - John Little:
I know NYPD has an insider threat program, and it really comes down to the old paradigm of counterintelligence. Do we have a good program because we got a guy, or a bad program because one got in? And then there's the other side of that. If we haven't caught anybody, does that mean we have a good program to keep people out or a bad program because we're not catching anybody? It's really no-win, but it's the game.

6:14 - William Tucker:
Every time we see these kinds of threats, we call out that it's never just one, it's never in isolation. Every one of these is something other agencies can look at, other police forces can look at, especially if they have large populations or similar frameworks. This is a chance to rethink things and take a look at your security, look at insider threats.

6:45 - William Tucker:
One of the good things you can do, and I'm sure most are aware of this, so this is more for public consumption, is if you live in any major city that hosts embassies or consulates, the bigger the threat picture is going to be for collection, especially for China. They have many consulates and cultural centers, and there's a lot of populations they look to exploit. In this case, they were keeping an eye on Tibetan dissidents, but it's not just Tibetan dissidents. There are a lot of other dissidents they like to keep an eye on. If you have those communities, and as law enforcement officers, you're sworn to protect them, it's a good idea to understand that threat picture and that a foreign intel service will try to exploit these communities. A good insider threat program within your organization can help mitigate some of that threat.

7:49 - John Little:
We tend to think in terms of systems and national security risk, but the personal risk to folks in the Tibetan community interfacing with this guy is substantial. There's a lot of personal damage these people leave in their wake.

8:02 - William Tucker:
Yeah, I mean, this is tough because there's going to be a negative impact within the Tibetan community itself. There's always that "one of our own guys is spying on us," and "is he the only one?" There will be some unfortunate negative thoughts, but it's something every community has to grapple with.

8:48 - John Little:
San Francisco springs to mind immediately when I thought about this. If there's any other city in the country where this is likely to be repeated at some scale, that would be it.

8:55 - William Tucker:
Yeah, there's Seattle, San Francisco, LA, all come to mind. In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, we know that not only was it MSS and some of their local counterparts in their state police, but they were here in the States, had people undercover at some of these protests, profiling dissidents. We know they were here. It shows the extent some of these countries are willing to go to keep an eye on things.

9:25 - John Little:
On a brighter note, one of the things we've been talking about for weeks here, if not years, is the problem with espionage activity at U.S. universities and how it relates to China. The FBI director came out, I think it was this week or late last week, and announced that they're seeing significant progress in getting universities to cooperate on that front.

9:52 - William Tucker:
That's fantastic news. I don't want to say it was inevitable, but there's a point where, with the FBI either indicting people or looking at disruption, these universities had to buy in to protect themselves and their staff. This really is fantastic news because it will protect a lot of students. China has targeted ethnic Chinese students to act as agents, which is unfortunate because they don't come over with that intention. It will help shut down that avenue of exploitation too.

10:45 - John Little:
One of the unfortunate potential side effects of countries like China spying at scale is that you see so many cases that it sort of builds momentum and can turn into a witch hunt. You end up painting folks with a broad brush, which we don't want to do. It's really challenging when they are operating at this scale. Tons of innocent people end up getting caught in the crossfire.

11:17 - William Tucker:
Which actually undermines your insider threat or counterintelligence programs. You've heard me say it many times: you focus on behavior. That's always the giveaway. You can undermine your programs by just giving you tunnel vision. It does happen and is understandable when looking at a threat as broad as this. Overall, this is good news for U.S. universities and the FBI's drive to counter this collection effort.

11:53 - John Little:
Now I'm wondering if over the next two months, we're going to see three or four more police officers around the country getting wrapped up.

12:04 - William Tucker:
Yeah, it's tough with police in particular because they do have to talk to so many people, and they touch everything. With this NYPD case, it obviously took a while to build this and get the proper warrants. You can see it in the indictments from the transcripts of the phone calls between the PRC agents and this NYPD officer. There might be some lessons learned and tools for law enforcement agencies to apply at home, just to see if they have a problem or avoid it altogether. Education is one of the biggest steps in any program, so that's a good place to start.

13:00 - John Little:
Espionage is like cancer. Nobody wants to get the news, but early detection is better.

13:06 - William Tucker:
That's the truth. In other Chinese spying activity, the list keeps growing. We have the head of a think tank, a former MI6 guy, Fraser Cameron. He runs the EU Asia Centre think tank and has been accused of passing information about the EU to spies acting as journalists.

13:35 - John Little:
This is an interesting case. There's a number of reports on it, but they don't carry the detail that’s helpful. This guy's former MI6, running this EU Asia think tank. Two agencies, MI6 in the UK and Belgium counterintelligence, opened an investigation. They told him he’s under investigation. No criminal complaint yet, and his response was it was absurd because he doesn’t have access to sensitive information, being out of MI6 for almost 30 years. As a head of a think tank, he would naturally speak to many people.

14:48 - William Tucker:
All of this could be true. However, when you speak with many people, especially from intelligence organizations, they may disclose things that may not be classified but not suited for public consumption. By experience, he probably would know the difference, but there may be newer things he’s unfamiliar with. Part of me leans toward him being one cog in a bigger wheel. They told him he’s under investigation because they’re probably focusing on the PRC agents acting as reporters. It may also be a warning, as PRC agents wouldn't have just one contact. They’re likely looking at others and trying to disrupt or flesh out a network.

16:00 - John Little:
The commonality between both cases is it comes down to access and networks. You don’t always need a security clearance to be valuable. Intelligence agencies are happy to work the fringes and scoop things up.

16:19 - William Tucker:
China may have felt more comfortable using reporters because EU or UK officials didn't feel comfortable speaking directly to Chinese diplomats ahead of negotiations. There are many things at play here. I want to see more details as this shakes out, if we get to see them.

17:23 - John Little:
The commonality in both cases is about access and networks. You don’t always need a security clearance to have value. Intelligence agencies are happy to work the fringes and gather what they can.

18:00 - William Tucker:
From China's perspective, they may have felt more comfortable with reporters because EU or UK officials didn't feel comfortable speaking directly to Chinese diplomats ahead of negotiations. There are many factors at play. I want to see more details if we get to see them.

19:05 - John Little:
Who knows what will be uncovered in Chinese espionage next week? It's unprecedented. I can’t remember a period in recent history with this constant drumbeat of cases. It seems unique to me.

19:28 - William Tucker:
I was thinking about that too. I pulled some old volumes on history in the Middle Ages. The Venetian secret service from the Venetian Empire was pretty active, with people everywhere. It was aggressive, akin to what we see today. I can’t say it was at the same volume due to lack of documentation, but it was a big deal. I can’t think of anything at this volume from China today.

20:32 - John Little:
It's interesting you bring that up. We might have to devote an episode to that. I haven’t done reading on intelligence from that period in a long time, but it's fascinating. There's a lot of literature from that period on intelligence activities. It’s pure human intelligence, and a lot of it still applies today.

21:06 - William Tucker:
Even during diplomatic negotiations, the Thirty Years' War and the Peace of Westphalia are instructive. It wasn’t a singular treaty but different cities and nations meeting. There were attempts to intercept dispatches to understand negotiations. Everybody looks for an edge. It’s nothing new.

21:46 - John Little:
Human nature hasn’t changed. The failings, tactics, and tradecraft at a fundamental level haven’t changed much. Younger folks, students, university-level listeners, and those wanting to get into intelligence often ask how to learn this stuff. I always hate having to tell people to read, but there’s no better way outside of enlisting in the military or getting formal government training.

23:02 - William Tucker:
That's the truth. There are great historical books that won’t kill you. Some can get tedious, but there are good reads. I may start digging through some of the things I have.

24:05 - John Little:
It's funny we were just talking about Christopher Wray and progress with U.S. universities. About ten years ago, the FBI director of counterintelligence tried convincing colleges they had a problem and was told to go pound sand more than once. I met him once. He gave me a book, "FBI Counterintelligence," an excellent read you can find on Amazon. It’s a great introduction to what the FBI does.

24:17 - William Tucker:
There are plenty of things for the CIA and good foreign intelligence reads. The former director of Indian intelligence wrote a book with his Pakistani counterpart. I haven’t read it but heard good things.

24:41 - John Little:
Let's put our heads together and come up with some out-of-the-box books. There are a lot of historical works that don’t make typical lists but are really helpful or interesting.

25:01 - William Tucker:
Take Kim Philby, for example. On the CIA website, they do book reviews. Some poor archivist counted about 200 books written on Kim Philby or the Cambridge Five. That’s astonishing. How do you sort through that and know what’s real? The CIA website is a great resource to get an idea because the book reviews are usually pretty good.

26:12 - John Little:
These DOJ indictments are instructive reading too. For this NYPD officer case, it’s a 24-page PDF, a quick read, but it outlines how these investigations work. You can see the difference between what’s in indictments and what’s in the media. The media has to sell a story, so they hit highlights. You’ll see discrepancies or information not reported. It’s not a criticism, just the nature of things. Definitely check DOJ for indictments. You can also search for anyone registered as a foreign agent.

27:04 - William Tucker:
Yes, that’s U.S. law. If you’re a foreign agent, you have to register. The UK has done a good job of publishing intelligence information too, some going back quite a ways. It’s kind of fun reading.

27:33 - John Little:
There was a period where I consumed everything. These days, most of my reading is work-focused. I cut through things like a buzz saw. None of it is for enjoyment. It’s all work, so it’s hard to recommend new books. Let’s come up with some interesting recommendations.

28:29 - William Tucker:
For example, "The Spy Who Went into the Cold" is a documentary about Kim Philby. I was looking at a book covering his younger years at Cambridge. It’s funny how reading one book can lead to many things blending together.

30:07 - William Tucker:
There's a term, "rabbit hole," that applies to reading on intelligence. It’s very easy to go down the rabbit hole, but it’s not boring.

30:15 - John Little:
It’s definitely not. Your learning never ends. The field is so complex with human factors, technology, and more. You constantly learn something new and gain new insights. If you don’t like to read, it’s hard to advance. If you do, there’s more material than you could ever consume.

30:54 - John Little:
Thanks for catching up this week. Apologies to everyone for the delay today. We’ll be back Thursday.

31:07 - Outro Music Plays

31:14 - Announcer:
You have been listening to the Covert Contact podcast from You can reach John at Thanks for listening.

Music Continues