Spy Inside State Department Betrayed Chinese Dissident, Says FBI

March 31, 2017 Updated: August 18, 2017

A senior State Department staff member who worked in the U.S. embassy in Beijing might have betrayed information concerning a Chinese dissident who sought asylum there in 2012, according to a FBI investigation. While the dissident in question has not been publicly named, the timing and location revealed by the investigators suggest that it almost certainly concerns the case of Chen Guangchen, a Chinese human rights lawyer who gained international attention in 2012 for escaping house arrest and making his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

According to a Department of Justice release, Candace Marie Claiborne, who worked in the Caucasus Affairs office of the State Department and had served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. embassy in Beijing was arrested on Tuesday and charged with two felony offenses for obstructing an official proceeding and making false statements to FBI investigators.

“Candace Marie Claiborne is a U.S. State Department employee who possesses a Top Secret security clearance and allegedly failed to report her contacts with Chinese foreign intelligence agents who provided her with thousands of dollars of gifts and benefits,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary B. McCord, “Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit.”

The criminal complaint from the Department of Justice revealed that Claiborne wrote in her journal that she could “generate 20K in 1 year” by betraying classified information from her work with Chinese intelligence agents. Allegedly Claiborne even requested Chinese agents to pay the school tuition, rent, and other living and travel expenses for a young man she was cohabitating with.

Chinese Dissident Betrayed

The complaint is vague as to what extent Claiborne, an office management specialist in the State Department, could have compromised classified information throughout her years of work. The FBI said that Claiborne admitted Tuesday at an FBI office in Washington D.C. that she had leaked information about a certain Chinese dissident being secretly housed at the U.S. embassy in Beijing in April and May 2012. Claiborne was stationed at the embassy at the time.

Chen Guangchen, a blind Chinese human rights lawyer and one of the most prominent dissidents persecuted by the Chinese government, escaped house arrest in April 2012 and secretly entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing to seek refuge on April 22. When news of Chen’s escape emerged a few days later, it gained international attention and was a major embarrassment to the Chinese government.

Chinese activist activist Chen Guangcheng (L) at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on May 2, 2012. (Jordan Pouille/AFP/GettyImages)
Chinese activist activist Chen Guangcheng (L) at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on May 2, 2012. (Jordan Pouille/AFP/GettyImages)

After diplomatic negotiations between the United States and China, Chen was initially persuaded to leave the U.S. embassy to reunite with his family, even though Chen’s friends and human rights watchdog groups at the time all strongly advised against it and called for the Obama administration to offer Chen immediate political asylum. U.S. negotiators, headed by assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell, later insisted that Chen left the embassy on his own accord and at no point did the U.S. embassy staff pressure him to leave.

Soon after leaving the U.S. embassy, however, Chen felt threats against him and his family and decided to leave China for the United States. As Chen’s case had garnered immense international attention at this point, the Chinese regime finally allowed Chen and his family to depart for the United States on May 19, 2012. Since then Chen has resided in the United States and has continued his civil rights advocacy and vocal criticism of the Chinese government.

It is unclear to what extent Claiborne’s leaks at the time might have tipped off or given the Chinese regime an edge in its negotiations with the U.S. diplomats. Chen’s memoir, published in 2016, however, reveals ample details of the miscommunication and misunderstanding that occurred between him and the senior U.S. diplomats sent by the Obama administration to negotiate with China.

Kurt Campbell, who negotiated on behalf of the United States, and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State at the time, were later criticized by many for their handling of Chen’s case and for not standing firm against China’s demands. On the other hand several U.S. congressional leaders were credited as having exerted significant pressure on the Obama administration that eventually helped Chen leave China. Chen’s memoir praises several members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi and Chris Smith, as “principled and fearless friends of the Chinese people”—in implicit contrast to Clinton and the Obama White House.

“These allegations [against Candace Claiborne], if true, are devastating. Our diplomats should not be trading sensitive U.S. intelligence for gifts and money,” said Republican Congressman Chris Smith. “There is absolutely no excuse for assisting the Chinese government, which steals the identities of U.S. government employees, hacks U.S. businesses secrets and has the world’s worst human rights record—the torture and abuse faced by Falun Gong practitioners and rights defenders like Chen Guangchen are beyond horrifying.  I trust that justice will be served in this case.”

Paul Huang is a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and is affiliated with the Taiwan edition of The Epoch Times.