April 14, 2014

Advice for U.S. College Students Abroad

Be Aware of Foreign Intelligence Threat

Three years ago, Glenn Duffie Shriver, a Michigan resident and former college student who had studied in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was sentenced to federal prison in the U.S. for attempting to provide national defense information to PRC intelligence officers. (See sidebar for more on the case.)

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 280,000 American students studied abroad last year. These experiences provide students with tremendous cultural opportunities and can equip them with specialized language, technical, and leadership skills that make them very marketable to U.S. private industry and government employers.

But this same marketability makes these students tempting and vulnerable targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence officers whose long-term goal is to gain access to sensitive or classified U.S. information. Glenn Shriver—prodded by foreign intelligence officers into eventually applying for U.S. government jobs—cited his naivety as a key factor in his actions.

The FBI—as the lead counterintelligence agency in the U.S.—has ramped up efforts to educate American university students preparing to study abroad about the dangers of knowingly or unknowingly getting caught up in espionage activities. As part of these efforts, we’re making available on this website our Game of Pawns: The Glenn Duffie Shriver Story video, which dramatizes the incremental steps taken by intelligence officers to recruit Shriver and convince him to apply for jobs with the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. We’d like American students traveling overseas to view this video before leaving the U.S. so they’re able to recognize when they’re being targeted and/or recruited.

How do foreign intelligence officers routinely interact with students?

  • Foreign intelligence officers don’t normally say they work for intelligence services when developing relationships with students—they claim other lines of work.
  • Intelligence officers develop initial relationships with students under seemingly innocuous pretexts such as job or internship opportunities, paid paper-writing engagements, language exchanges, and cultural immersion programs.
  • As relationships are developed, the student might be asked to perform a task and provide information—not necessarily sensitive or classified—in exchange for payment or other rewards, but these demands grow over time.
  • Intelligence officers might suggest that students—upon completion of their schooling—apply for U.S. government jobs (particularly for national security-related agencies).

What can students do to protect themselves while studying abroad?

  • Be skeptical of “money-for-nothing” offers and other opportunities that seem too good to be true, and be cautious of being offered free favors, especially those involving government processes such as obtaining visas, residence permits, and work papers.
  • Minimize personal information you reveal about yourself, especially through social media.
    Minimize your contact with people who have questionable government affiliations or who you suspect might be engaged in criminal activity.
  • Properly report any money or compensation you received while abroad on tax forms and other financial disclosure documents to ensure compliance with U.S. laws.
  • Above all, keep your awareness level up at all times. “A keen awareness,” said Glenn Duffie Shriver in a warning to other students, “is the most powerful weapon [against being recruited].”

And when you return to the U.S., report any suspicious activity to your local FBI office. You can also contact your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate while abroad.

Shriver Case: A Textbook Case of Recruitment

Glenn Duffie Shriver seemed like an average college student—majoring in international relations at a college in Michigan and interested in seeing the world. During his junior year (2002-2003), he attended a study abroad program at a school in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China (PRC). He developed an interest in Chinese culture and had considerable proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, so after graduating from college in 2004, he returned to the PRC to continue his language studies and to look for work.

Around October 2004, Shriver—living in Shanghai and financially strapped—responded to an English ad offering to pay individuals to write political papers. A woman named “Amanda” contacted him, met with him several times, and then paid him $120 to write a paper. A few months later, she reached out to Shriver again, saying she thought the paper was good and asked if he’d be interested in meeting her associates. He agreed.

Amanda introduced him to two associates who said they were interested in developing a “friendship” with him and who began suggesting that he consider applying for U.S. government jobs. Eventually, Shriver realized that the men and Amanda were affiliated with the PRC government; nonetheless he agreed to seek a government job. Over the next few years, that’s exactly what he did—receiving a total of $70,000 in exchange for applying for jobs—until his scheme was uncovered and he was arrested by the FBI in 2010. He ultimately pled guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Shriver later admitted in court that his ultimate objective was to get a job with a U.S. government agency that would give him access to classified information, which he would then provide to the PRC officers in return for cash payments.

To a recent college graduate, $70,000 seemed like a lot of money, and the promise of even more was too tempting for Shriver to pass up. What he didn’t consider, though, were the long-term costs of his actions, which included, as one FBI investigator put it, “throwing away his education, his career, and his future when he chose to position himself as a spy for the PRC.”