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Unlocking the Secrets of MOMINT

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READApr 6, 2017 | 08:00 GMT
The Federal Bureau of Investigation crest inside the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, DC.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation crest inside the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, DC. It pays to know who your mother is receiving gifts from.
(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The old cliche goes that there's no substitute for a mother's love. But for Chinese intelligence officers, her access to classified information comes close. On March 29, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of Candace Claiborne, an office management specialist (or administrative assistant) with the State Department, for failing to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts and payments from Chinese officials. The criminal complaint against Claiborne notes that she was in communication with two suspected operatives with the Shanghai State Security Bureau, a regional office that reports to the Chinese Civilian intelligence service the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in Beijing. It also cites an instance in May 2011, during Claiborne's third tour in China, when a suspected Chinese intelligence officer contacted her to request internal U.S. government analysis of a recent U.S.-China strategic economic dialogue. A month earlier, Claiborne received a $2,480 payment. (It isn't clear whether she provided the document, which probably explains why she hasn't been charged with espionage.)

Some of the gifts that Claiborne accepted, which included thousands of dollars in cash and items such as an iPhone and MacBook computer, were for her personal use. Many of them, however, went to a person identified in the complaint against her as "Co-conspirator A." The media initially ran with stories that the figure was a man deployed by Chinese intelligence to steal Claiborne's heart — and any privileged information she had access to — in a so-called "honey-trap" operation. After all, female administrators are frequent targets of these kinds of schemes, which typically dispatch attractive men (known as "ravens") to romance them. But the details of the complaint make clear that Co-conspirator A is, in fact, Claiborne's adult son, who returned to live with his mother in China in 2012 after finishing college in Maryland. Among the items he received through his mother's Chinese contacts are tuition at a fashion school in Shanghai, spending money, a furnished apartment, international vacations for him and his friends, a sewing machine, and herbal medicines.

The incident offers insight into what we have dubbed "MOMINT" — or mom intelligence. And though Claiborne is not facing espionage charges, her case provides some useful lessons about the business of spying.

Hold the ICE

It's a hard truth to break to my friends in U.S. intelligence agencies, but the people who wind up spying against their governments usually volunteer for the job. Most of the CIA's and FBI's invaluable sources are not the product of painstaking grooming; they're walk-ins who wanted to work for the Americans. The same goes for Americans who flip for foreign intelligence agencies — Claiborne among them, apparently. The FBI complaint outlines how she first contacted one of the Shanghai State Security Bureau intelligence officials (called "Co-Conspirator B") in June 2007 looking for help finding her son a job as an English teacher in Shanghai. Co-conspirator B reportedly replied that he remembered Claiborne well and that he would check with his friends to see what assistance they could offer. The next day, he emailed Claiborne's son about a job teaching English at a school in Shanghai. The three continued talking throughout 2007 and 2008 about Claiborne's son's job prospects.

The people who wind up spying against their governments usually volunteer for the job. Most of the CIA's and FBI's invaluable sources are not the product of painstaking grooming; they're walk-ins who wanted to work for the Americans.

The KGB, the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, developed MICE, a now-famous acronym for its four-pronged approach to recruiting: money, ideology, compromise and ego. For Americans working with foreign intelligence agencies, however, it's clear that cash is king. In this respect, Claiborne is no different from American double agents such as Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Philip Agee. Claiborne, like these notorious figures, was in financial trouble. Despite her efforts to set him up with a job, Claiborne's son preferred to keep relying on his mother's financial support. The arrangement strained Claiborne's modest salary and left her burdened with heavy debt, including tax payments owed to the District of Columbia. And compared with many other parents in her situation, Claiborne had an unusual advantage. She realized she could use her position with the State Department and her connections in Chinese intelligence to get the help she needed for her and her son through MOMINT.

Caught on the Little Hook

Unlike Ames, Hanssen and Agee, though, Claiborne appears never to have fully committed to spying. An analysis of the criminal complaint reveals that she was merely stringing her Chinese contacts along, accepting money and gifts in exchange for classified information that she promised — but by all appearances, never delivered. Even so, the conversations with her son documented in the complaint demonstrate that she knew she was playing a dangerous game.

A common tactic that intelligence officers use in the recruiting process is known as the "little hook." In this process, a handler asks a prospective spy for a seemingly innocuous document and then pays him or her for it, all the while recording the transaction. The exchange not only proves the recruit's mettle, but it also gives the handler blackmail material to use to get the newly minted agent to give up more and more sensitive information. So though Claiborne's dealings with Chinese intelligence started with money, they quickly put her in a compromised position.

The complaint documents several occasions in which she apparently tried to distance herself from her contacts in the Shanghai State Security Bureau. Shortly after her first exchange with Co-conspirator B in 2007, for instance, she discussed the possibility of leaving the State Department. But instead she stayed on, and even bid on a post in Beijing, perhaps an indication that the MSS had already established influence over her actions. In the years that followed, Claiborne repeatedly tried to ignore requests for contact from the Chinese intelligence officers, refused to travel to meet them and told her son not to tell them where she was working. Her son, meanwhile, kept asking for more favors and financial assistance from the officers, who were only too willing to oblige. Claiborne's son kept digging the hooks of Chinese intelligence deeper and deeper into his mother until she felt trapped. At one point, she wrote to him to express her frustration that his actions kept getting her "dragged into this" time and again.

This sense of entrapment eventually led Claiborne to welcome an undercover FBI agent posing as a Chinese intelligence officer into her home in Washington to talk. MOMINT may have provided Claiborne with quick cash in a time of need, but she wound up paying the price. 

A Long and Changing Game

Beyond the lessons it offers on intelligence recruiting in general, the case also offers some interesting points on Chinese intelligence specifically. For one thing, Claiborne's experience with the MSS illustrates the agency's patience in their human intelligence operations. Compared with American agents, who are typically quick to move from the little hook to gleaning more sensitive intelligence, the Chinese officers were willing to invest years developing their source. For another, that Claiborne is not ethnically Chinese is unusual. The conventional wisdom for years was that intelligence agencies in China specialized in targeting and recruiting ethnic Chinese sources. And, in fact, they still focus largely on ethnic Chinese recruits — but not exclusively. A recent Newsweek article by Jeff Stein noted that the CIA has adapted its thinking about Chinese espionage ever since the MSS recruited a Caucasian American, Glenn Shriver, in 2010 while he was studying in China. After bringing Shriver under its wing, the Chinese intelligence agency then sent him home to infiltrate the CIA.

Finally, the details included in the complaint suggest that Claiborne's Chinese handlers were careless in covering their tracks. Investigators have uncovered a sizable quantity of emails, texts and other communications between them, though the Chinese intelligence officers seemed to prefer physical handoffs and in-person meetings to electronic contact when conveying sensitive information. Old-school spying techniques still have their place, even in the age of cyberespionage. And from the looks of it, Claiborne wasn't terribly tech savvy, either. She tried to obscure her ties to the Chinese officers by deleting emails in response to State Department and FBI interviews — a tactic more likely to raise suspicions than to eliminate evidence. The instructions she gave her son not to tell the MSS where she was were similarly naive, considering that she sent them from a MacBook or iPhone that the intelligence agency had furnished her, doubtless complete with keyloggers and other malware.

Claiborne wasn't a professional spy, nor was she practicing good espionage tradecraft. Nevertheless, she managed to get away with her activities for a decade before she was discovered. Based on her experience, one can't help but wonder how many other "Mama Haris" are still out there operating for foreign intelligence services.

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