This year’s key espionage cases were once again dominated by the United States economic and geopolitical adversaries: Russia and China. The year also saw a number of insiders, with access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets, attempt to sell those secrets to foreign nations. As 2021 comes to a close there is no sign of abatement in the nation’s adversaries intent to conduct espionage activities, nor, sadly a reduction in the number of trusted insiders becoming untrustworthy.

top 5 espionage cases of 2021

While 2020 had a clear highlight with Peter Debbins and his espionage on behalf of Russia coming to a close, 2021 still had quite a few cases and lessons to study. Here are the five top espionage topics/cases of 2021.

#5 – Malevolent Insiders

2021 saw a number of insiders who took advantage of their trusted insider status to steal classified information, in essence hoarding the information. Such was the case of Kendra Kingsbury, who was an FBI analyst within the FBI’s Kansas City Division who over the course of her time there June 2004 through December 2017 collected information on counterintelligence, violent gangs, drug trafficking, and other areas of investigation being conducted by the division. In July, A DoD employee, Asia Janay Lavarello, pleaded guilty to squirreling away classified materials while on a TDY assignment to the Philippines, which she then brought back the United States. .

#4  – China & Russia cyber attacks on U.S. companies/infrastructure

The year began with the U.S. reeling from the affects of the SolarWinds compromise and continued throughout the year with one after another. In March 2021, Microsoft Exchange Servers came under attack by China  – also known as the HAFNIUM group attack. China also was tagged with being responsible for the compromise of the Pulse Connect Secure VPN which made the U.S. Defense Industrial Base vulnerable. While Russian cybercrime entity, DarkSide took down the Colonial Pipeline with a ransomware attack, which resulted in an all of government response, ultimately ending with the U.S. recovering some of the paid ransom and Cyber Command taking offensive action. In May 2021, indictments were levied against four Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) officers who, per Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco, “the breadth and duration of China’s hacking campaigns, including these efforts targeting a dozen countries across sectors ranging from healthcare and biomedical research to aviation and defense, remind us that no country or industry is safe.”

#3 – China Thousand Talents Program

This program was highlighted in 2020 compendium as number five, and has moved up the roundup, given China, as expected, kept their foot on the gas, and the U.S. FBI and Department of Justice stepped up their efforts to neutralize these Chinese efforts. Yet not all the efforts of the China Initiative were successful, indeed some of their cases collapsed in their entirety, which called into question whether the initiative was actually identifying espionage activities. The success in achieving guilty pleas and convictions seems to provide ample evidence that aspects of the program are neutralizing the Chinese efforts to acquired U.S. government funded research.

The year started with a NASA scientist pleading guilty to having made false statements to the FBI surrounding his participation in the Thousand Talents Program. Indeed, the scientist, Meyya Meyyappan was one of Silicon Valley’s most distinguished engineers. Meyyappan stands apart from others who participated in the Chinese program because he was a U.S. government employee, and as a trusted insider, he had the requirement to file outside employment or activity requests, which he had failed to do. When the rubber hit the road, the FBI and DOJ investigations showed that Meyyappan was enterprising and entrepreneurial, he had similar relationships with Japan and South Korean, where he was remunerated on an annual basis.

The year closed out with the conviction of former Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, Charles Lieber, for his participation in China’s Thousand Talents program. He kept his engagement with China’s Wuhan University of Technology on the down-low, and when confronted by the FBI, lied to the interviewing special agents. He also falsified his taxes and failed to declare his Chinese income. While not an espionage conviction, the indictment, arrest and subsequent conviction, send a message to others that sub rosa covert relationships which share U.S. funded research with China or others, will be discovered and neutralized.

#2 –  Jonathan & Diana Toebbe – U.S. nuclear technology

In what must be described as a concerted attempt at espionage by an individual who had watched or read too many spy novels, we have the case of the Toebbes. The couple attempted to sell U.S. nuclear technology to an unknown government, having placed a price tag of $5 million on the trove of information. The unknown government informed the FBI of the approach, and the FBI engaged in a full-on sting operation which culminated in the couple being arrested servicing an FBI controlled dead drop in West Virginia. This case will play out in the coming year, as the trial is scheduled for May 17, 2022 in Martinsburg, WV.

#1 – China – Yanjun Xu, MSS intelligence officer

The trial and conviction of Chinese intelligence operative Xu culminated a multi-year counterintelligence effort by the FBI and DOJ. Xu, operating under commercial cover, spotted, assessed, and recruited an employee of GE Aviation. What Xu did not know, was that the insider who broke trust with GE on China’s behalf had been detected by GE’s insider program. This early detection, while no doubt lamentable, also provided FBI and GE to turn that individual into a cooperating insider, even though his continued employment was not in the cards. This was the first instance of a Chinese intelligence officer being arrested abroad, extradited to the U.S., standing trial, and being convicted. The officer, as noted, was operating under commercial non-official cover and thus did not enjoy the niceties which diplomatic cover would have provided.

The takeaways the FSO

The takeaway for every Facility Security Officer, remains nearly identical to that which was shared in the Top 5 U.S. Espionage Cases of 2020. China and Russia are using all the arrows in the operational quiver to fire away at our collective defenses in hopes of snagging a source of classified information for the long term. Your insider is the target – they may self-select or be induced by a foreign adversary.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of