Don't Be a Pawn

April 14, 2014

Foreign intelligence services are targeting American students studying abroad with the goal of enticing them to betray their own country.

Audio Transcript

Mollie Halpern: Foreign intelligence services are targeting American students studying abroad with the goal of enticing them to betray their own country. I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and you're listening to Inside the FBI.

Michael Orlando: The ultimate goal is that the student will eventually get a job in government. And it’s not just the FBI or the CIA—they’re interested in all forms of government. And then, once they are in the process, the ultimate goal is that the student is going to commit espionage and provide them sensitive information.

Halpern: That was Michael Orlando, an assistant section chief in the Bureau’s Counterintelligence Division who says foreign intelligent services don’t limit themselves to students interested in government; they also identify students who desire to work for American companies—especially those with government contracts.

Orlando: They will likely target students going into the private sector, and they will expect the same type of information from them—just not classified but sensitive business information.

Halpern: Trade secrets?

Orlando: Trade secrets.

Halpern: The process of grooming students to become spies is called “seeding operations.” One such operation happened to former college student Glenn Duffie Shriver, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit espionage for a foreign government back in 2010. Shriver’s case isn’t an isolated incident; the FBI and other members of the intelligence community have determined similar operations are happening in many countries and are an ongoing threat.

Orlando: There are many other cases we are looking at, there are many other information that we have that this is widespread and ongoing, and so we feel that it’s important that we reach out to the public to make them aware of this threat.

Halpern: Coming up in this episode of Inside the FBI: Hear excerpts of a prison interview with Shriver...learn how foreign intelligence services recruit American students to spy for them...and what students can do to keep safe.

But first, this story comes as the number of U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit is at a record high. The Institute of International Education says 283,332 students studied abroad during the 2011-2012 school year—that’s a 3 percent increase from the previous year. The independent, not-for-profit organization also reports that the number of students studying abroad has more than tripled over the past two decades.

Orlando: Crimes are global, and we and other agencies need students with specialized skills that understand foreign cultures, language abilities, who have that experience to help us in a variety of things.

Halpern: Foreign intelligence services know the FBI and other agencies hire graduates with those types of backgrounds. These services use that knowledge to their advantage. The first step of their recruitment process—or seeding operation—is befriending the students through ways that mirror the students’ interests. They’ll develop the relationship over time…

Orlando: They are in it for the long game—this isn’t something that they’re trying to accomplish in days or weeks, but something that they’re going to work on for years. Time is on their side. Espionage is a long, slippery slope—you never just ask someone to commit treason. Over time, you’re asking them to do things and evolve into things that may not be legal.

Halpern: To foster the relationship, foreign intelligence operatives will flatter and encourage students, show interest in their future success, and even promise to help them obtain a government-issued visa or work permit—but it’s all disingenuous and empty promises. The truth is, the operatives are just using the student as a pawn to achieve their own ends, without concern for the student’s welfare or future. Many times these operatives don’t reveal their intelligence affiliations to the students; instead, they represent themselves as local government officials or some other type of foreign professional. The foreign intelligence services may even ask the student to keep their friendship a secret. After a while, the operatives will give students assignments to see which of the students are responsible.

Orlando: One of the ones that we have seen is writing papers—innocuous papers about foreign policy, opinion papers of a current event. The student writes the paper, and they pay them money for it.

Halpern: If a student is receptive to the assignments, the taskings increase. Eventually, the foreign operatives begin to engage the student in conversation about the student’s future.

Orlando: If the student indicates he’s interested in applying for a job at the CIA or FBI or other agencies, they will encourage them to do it. They will ask them to go ahead and do it, and then assist them in that process if possible, and even possibly pay them to go ahead and do that.

Halpern: Students can become financially dependent on the foreign intelligence services during the seeding operation.

Orlando: At the FBI, we don’t really believe that people want to engage in espionage for the most part. But people do, and people are sometimes tricked into it—and we want to make sure that students aren't tricked into it. But at some point, it’s not trickery anymore; you understand what you are doing. And once you take money from a foreign intelligence service, and you engage in trying to commit an espionage-type activity or try to get employment with the U.S. government on the behalf of a foreign government, that is espionage activity, and you will certainly get prosecuted for that type of activity.

Halpern: That is exactly what happened to Glenn Duffie Shriver.

In 2004, the college graduate lived in Shanghai, China, where he studied foreign language and looked for work. One day, he responded to an online advertisement in English, which offered payment for a written political paper. A woman known only as “Amanda” replied to him by e-mail, met with him several times, and then paid him $120 for the paper. A few months later, Amanda contacted Shriver, told him the paper was good, and offered to introduce him to Mr. Wu and Mr. Tang. As Shriver tells us from behind bars, the four of them met more than once.

Glenn Duffie Shriver: They would take me to a nice restaurant, or sometimes we would meet in a very nice penthouse of a hotel. We would meet, talk for a while, and the strong majority of the talk was, you know, harmless...“Oh, you know, so, what’s going on with you these days? Oh, is your family well?”

Halpern: The meetings were under the auspices of becoming “friends.”

Shriver: The biggest thing was how friendly they were, you know, just, “Hey, no problem, you want some money? It’s okay, hey, you know, don’t worry about it. We just want to be friendly with you, we’re friends. It’s important for China and America to have strong relations, and the more people who are friends, you know, I mean, the better off that’ll be.”

Halpern: Shriver says there were signs something wasn’t right...

Shriver: You know, through the time, they kept telling me, “Hey, you know, we don’t want anything illegal from you, you know. We’re not asking for anything illegal, you know.” At the same time, they were telling, "Hey, maybe it would be best not to talk about, you know, us meeting with each other," things like that.

Halpern: Friendly conversations turned to talks about how Shriver should apply for a job with the U.S. government. They even told Shriver they would pay him to do it. Shriver realized they were intelligence officers from the People's Republic of China. He knew that if he obtained a job with the U.S. government, he would be required to provide them with classified documents in exchange for continued payments. Despite this, Shriver crossed the line and applied for positions at the U.S. Department of State and the CIA over the next few years, for which he received a total of $70,000. Shriver says greed was his motivation.

Shriver: They say everyone has their price, and, you know, when you're being told, "Hey, you don't have to do anything about it...we just want to be your friend. Here’s $10,000, no big deal," you know. That’s hard to say no to. Recruitment’s going on, you know. Don't fool yourself.

Halpern: The U.S. government wasn’t fooled either—investigators were on to Shriver and his actions. He was sentenced to four years in federal prison.

Shriver: I’ll never be able to work for the U.S. government. Probably a lot of the major businesses will not be interested in hiring me. There are definitely a lot of negative effects associated with being a felon. That’s a stigma I'm going to have to, you know, beat down.

Halpern: The FBI wants American college students to learn from Shriver’s story.

Orlando: In regards to Glen Duffie Shriver, not only did he serve four years in jail, but any hopes or aspirations to work in government are forever gone. And he’ll be forever tainted by this instance and be known for that. And so for students who are thinking about jobs in government, they need to consider this if they’re going to engage in this type of activity. 

Halpern: So how do American students studying abroad recognize the red flags? If foreigners take an undue interest in you or your future career and offer you money and favors—that’s an indicator. If those same foreigners have questionable government or criminal affiliations or task you with assignments—that’s another indicator.

Remain cognizant of the need to protect yourself from threats. So, minimize the personal information your reveal about yourself—including your profiles on social media. And listen to your intuition. Advice from Shriver himself...

Shriver: Keep thinking, asking yourself those questions. What am I doing? Who are these people? How's this going to affect me? And if you don’t like the answers you’re getting, get out of the situation. Awareness—a keen awareness—is the most powerful weapon.

Halpern: Something else to keep in mind...

Orlando: ...while you’re traveling overseas, that foreign intelligence services from a third country can target you in the host country that you’re currently traveling to. And so you should be cautious, suspicious of any contact that you believe is questionable, even though it’s not from the host country that you’re visiting.

Halpern: Orlando warns that students shouldn’t think they can outsmart foreign intelligence officers.

Orlando: Students need to be aware that the intelligence services are potentially videotaping your transactions with them and doing other things that may be able to be used against you in blackmail. So, later on if you try to pull out, they’re going to start showing those tapes to you and threatening to pass them on to the FBI so that you are arrested.

Halpern: Be sure to report suspicious activity such as espionage.

Orlando: We recommend that while you are overseas, you report it to the regional security officer at the American Embassy; then upon your return, you report it to the local FBI office. And, if you just don’t know and you’re not sure, just call the FBI.

Halpern: Informing the proper authorities will help ensure students have a positive and safe study abroad experience.

Orlando: So we feel that students have a responsibility—or anyone who goes overseas has a responsibility—to report that and not engage in that activity. We certainly don’t want them to betray their country, and we think every American should understand that betraying the country is not something that is acceptable.

Halpern: Reporting also safeguards America and her people’s future.

Shriver: Someone who commits espionage is someone who takes the highest level of trust and betrays that. Espionage is a very big deal, very big deal. You’re dealing with people’s lives, and that’s why it’s such a big deal.

Orlando: In the Glenn Duffie Shriver case, the foreign intelligence services used him [as] a pawn in a game, moving him on the board for their own objective. And what we want to make sure is that other students aren't used as a pawn in a different game.

Halpern: Bottom line: Don’t be a pawn. To see an FBI-produced movie titled Game of Pawns about the true story of Shiver’s case, visit I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau. Thanks for listening to Inside the FBI.


-Related story and video: Students Abroad Warned of Foreign Intelligence Threat

Audio Download