The Chinese Spy, or a Dupe in the Senator’s Office?

Much has been made about the presence of a “Chinese spy” in the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and how he worked for her for about 20 years.

The staffer has been identified by multiple media outlets as Russell Lowe, who was employed in the senator’s office until 2013 (the last year his name shows up on the senator’s staff salary list). What his duties were during his years with Feinstein vary depending upon where you look—they range from office director to the senator’s driver. Regardless, he was an employee for a good many years with presumed regular access to the senator’s office, staff and Feinstein herself.

The good senator tells us via an Aug. 4 Tweet to the POTUS how the FBI had approached her in 2013 and informed her that China was attempting to “recruit” a member of her California staff. She characterized the staffer as having no access to sensitive information. She concludes that she took the FBI’s concerns seriously and “made sure the employee left my office immediately.”

Feinstein let Lowe go because he was being targeted by the Chinese intelligence apparatus?

Hostile intelligence organizations targeting officers are always collecting, sifting and collating information on individuals with access to information of interest. All intelligence service field officers are touching, probing, engaging and ultimately assessing targeted individuals to determine suitability and access to engage in a clandestine relationship: espionage.

Members of Congress (both houses) who sit on the intelligence oversight committees and their staffs are of interest to hostile intelligence services, and even some of the friendlier nations have an interest on what the U.S. intelligence agencies might be up to. China is no exception. Recent U.S. indictments surrounding China’s human intelligence (HUMINT) and cyber operations against the United States are substantial and stand as confirmation of their interest.

I’d be willing to put at risk a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and make the assertion that other members of Feinstein’s staff have at one time or another found their way onto a nation state’s intelligence roster for assessment as potential sources, both during her tenure as mayor of San Francisco and as a senator representing California.

Which brings us back to Lowe.

Was he a Chinese spy?

He might be. But then again, maybe not.

The fact that the FBI warned Feinstein about Lowe is indicative of a more concerted effort on the part of the Chinese, one that broke through the fog and came to the FBI’s counterintelligence team’s attention.

There is no statute of limitations on espionage, so the fact the FBI did not prosecute Lowe doesn’t preclude the agency from doing so at a future date. Its briefing of the senator, as distilled into her Tweet, leads one to believe the FBI had more substantive data points than mere observation.

Lowe’s summary firing by the senator further suggests that the first rule of counterintelligence mitigation was being followed: Terminate access. With Lowe out of her office she had neutralized the continued threat he represented to her, her office and the United States. One isn’t terminated because they are targeted, right?

But he had no access to classified materials, so was he really a spy?

Lowe, as an ethnic Chinese U.S. citizen, fit perfectly the targeting profile of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, especially its modus operendi being used during the late 1990s and early 2000.

There is ample evidence that Lowe enjoyed the attention and engagement with members of Chinese government. Lowe has been observed in proximity with members of the Chinese consulate staff in San Francisco at a number of official social events.

Indeed, upon Lowe’s departure from Feinstein’s office, he went on to head up a non-governmental organization focused on the remembrance of the “Comfort Women.” One can expect to continue to see Lowe in touch with China as the plight of the Comfort Women it is one of the hot-button topics Japan-Korea and Japan-China relations. And it is in China’s interest to keep the relationship between Japan and Korea and the United States and Japan as “cool’ as possible. In 2017, the sister cities relationship between Osaka and San Francisco was ruptured when a statue remembering these victims of World War II was erected in San Francisco.

The Washington Post, in an op-ed written by Marc Thiessen, shares anonymous commentary from former CIA clandestine service officers on the value of having a spy in the Senator’s office. I wasn’t one of those former CIA officers who spoke to the Post, though I do agree with the publication’s collective analysis on the value of having a source like Lowe in Feinstein’s office: “We would have had a field day.”

From my seat—one with a few years of offensive intelligence operations under my belt—Lowe probably isn’t a spy; more than likely he may just be a dupe. Why would the Ministry of State Security formally recruit a “spy” when the information could be obtained far more casually?

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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