The adage is countries don’t have friends; they have interests. And that is certainly the case when we look back on the tale of Donald Willis Keyser, the former deputy chief of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau within the Department of State, who on this date, January 22, 2007, was sentenced to 12 months plus one day in prison and fined $25,000. His crime? Mishandling classified information and two counts of lying to authorities.

The prosecutor, Chuck Rosenberg noted at the time of his sentencing, “Mr. Keyser had an absolute obligation to safeguard the classified information entrusted to him and utterly failed to do so. His sentence of imprisonment is a warning to others in positions of public trust.”

Keyser was a career senior foreign service officer of more than 30 years who was deeply involved in U.S. foreign policy involving the always ticklish relationship between the U.S. and China and the U.S. and Taiwan.

On the surface, Keyser’s crime sounds a bit mundane. But in reality, the case of Donald W. Keyser is anything but mundane.  He hoarded classified information at his residence (3,659 Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential documents – accumulated from 1992-2004) and had unreported close and continuing contact with a foreign national, with whom he was sexually involved.

In September 2004, Keyser was arrested on the basis of a criminal complaint filed by the FBI. This was followed by a plea agreement in December 2005  between the Department of Justice (DoJ) and Keyser. Keyser pledged his cooperation, pleading guilty to the removal of classified material and two counts of false statements. In exchange, the DoJ dropped the charge of espionage.

In late-June 2006, the DoJ filed a motion to find Keyser in material breach of the plea agreement. The memorandum in support of the DoJ’s position was filed on July 5, 2006 and reads like it could be the basis for a salacious B-movie script, 44-page pdf). The filing of the motion apparently incentivized Keyser to be more cooperative, as the DoJ subsequently dropped their motion.

subterfuge on behalf of Taiwan

When we dig deeper, we find a salacious tale of intrigue where a senior State Department official, Keyser had as his paramour a Taiwanese National Security Bureau intelligence officer, Isabelle Cheng. She was approximately 25-30 years his junior and was accredited to the Republic of China’s mission in Washington, D.C. According to the FBI, who had Keyser under physical surveillance, the couple’s sexual liaison was observed taking place in Keyser’s car.

Keyser was adamant that while he had a relationship with Cheng, he never shared any classified information.

The FBI thought otherwise, “e-mail records demonstrate that the defendant provided extensive information to Cheng that he believed was valuable to her work as an intelligence officer.” Cheng, no doubt viewed Keyser as a valuable asset, as detailed in a secret correspondence to the Taiwan National Security Bureau (NSB) in which she reported that “Donald Keyser, the Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Affairs of the U.S., continued to explain the recent diplomatic behavior of the PRC.”

On May 8, 2004, Keyser’s email to Cheng identified a colleague at the Department of State as suitable for recruitment, “This is the kind of person who is ripe for recruitment by careful, methodical, serious intelligence agencies. In the days of the Cold War, Soviet and East German intelligence officers were quite practiced at identifying people like this, people who did not wake up one day and say, “I want to be a traitor” but people whose relatively minor weaknesses and ego gratification needs made them potential targets.”

The emails also provide evidence of Keyser, totally smitten with Cheng, figuratively throwing himself at her feet in his desire to accommodate her needs. In a May 23, 2004 email to Cheng, he said, “I’m glad if the background helped. By now you know that, as we say, ‘your wish is my command’, all you need to do is ask, and I will do my best to reply quickly, fully, and helpfully. No matter the subject, whether official or personal. Anything.

The arrest of Keyser occurred when the FBI having surveilled Keyser to a meeting with Cheng and another Taiwanese NSB officer, Michael Huang, on September 4, 2004, at the Potowmack Landing restaurant in Alexandria, VA and observed him passing two envelopes to the NSB officers. The FBI would describe the envelopes as appearing to “bear U.S. government printing.” The three were braced by the FBI upon conclusion of their meeting.

Keyser was taken into custody and within one of the envelopes which Keyser had passed to the NSB was a six-page document described as “derived from material to which Keyser had access as a result of his employment with the Department of State.”

Keyser handling of classified materials

On September 4, 2004, the FBI came to Keyser’s home to conduct a search. During that search, they found a plethora of documents originating from the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. All told, there were 3,659 classified documents found in his home, half of which were in a bookshelf in his den.

He claimed that he didn’t know that he had classified materials at his residence, which he said got there during a series of office moves, as he attempted to throw his admin under the bus. He did, however, eventually acknowledge that he knew there were classified documents in his residence and had been reminded by his spouse, a senior CIA officer, Margaret Lyons.

The FBI also found that Keyser tacked on a 3-day trip to Taiwan following an official visit to the People’s Republic of China in August 2003, to visit Cheng. He brought along with him a laptop computer that contained U.S. classified materials. FBI forensics showed that the laptop was used during the three days he was in Taiwan.

This was not Keyser’s first time mishandling classified materials. In 2000, then-Secretary Albright suspended Keyser and five other officials assigned to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the State Department’s intelligence arm, for losing a laptop that contained thousands of pages of information concerning weapons proliferation issues.

Keyser’s plea obviated the need for a trial and U.S.-Taiwan relations apparently didn’t take a hit as a result of Keyser’s subterfuge.

Keyser served his prison time and was released from prison on January 25, 2008.

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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