Speak to any human intelligence officer about the human asset recruitment cycle and they will address how they spot, assess, and develop their targets of interest. They will also include the importance of knowing as much about your target as possible, thus giving credence to the adage, “knowledge is power.” It is in this light, that we dig into the court transcript of the case of convicted Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) officer, Yanjun Xu, and how LinkedIn was leveraged by the Xu and the MSS.
Yanjun Xu is a convicted MSS intelligence officer, who is awaiting sentencing.
At his trial, former chief of CIA’s counterintelligence, James Olson, provided expert commentary on the mechanics of the MSS in their effort to recruit individuals to provide confidential information to the Chinese government.
LinkedIn – China’s candy store
Olson was asked, “Is LinkedIn used in the spotting process for the MSS?” His one word response speaks volumes. He said, “Massively.” Olson was asked to expand his response. His response should be required reading for every FSO and CI officer who is providing cleared personnel with briefings on the need to be circumspect, obtuse, and downright pithy in social network engagements.
Olson went on to characterize LinkedIn as “one of their major spotting mechanisms, because on LinkedIn, what do they find? They find the resumes of American government officials, former military officers, engineers in high-tech companies, and employees at national laboratories who are looking for new employment. And those people post their resumes, in many cases indicating what U.S. government security clearances they had. They talk about projects they were involved in. So, LinkedIn is like a candy store if I can put it that way, for Chinese intelligence, because they’ve already identified people who meet their criteria.”
Sound familiar? It should.
A quick search results in many U.S. espionage cases that have a LinkedIn nexus. Indeed, that same search will identify the repeated warnings over the course of the past 7-8 years of warnings provided by the FBI, DCSA, National Counterintelligence Executive, and the governments of the UK, Germany, France, and others. All pointing to the exploitation of LinkedIn by the Chinese intelligence apparatus. This exploitation leverages, as Olson notes in his testimony, the content placed on the social network by the individual.
MSS recruitment cycle
In the case of Xu, Olson testified that the MSS “spotted” their target of interest via his LinkedIn posting (profile) as an individual with potentially good access. The next step in the MSS playbook is to construct a means to get the individual to China for “assessment” and “development.” The MSS arranged for a noted persona within the aviation industry to invite the GE engineer to China. This was followed by a variety of communication with the targeted engineer, via email, WeChat, phone, and messaging. Staying in touch and connected. This is followed by the use of “requirements” put together by the Chinese aviation sector and used piecemeal with the target to ferret out the target’s willingness to share information. As Olson points out, the MSS case officer is leveraging experts to push the target toward compromise and ultimately recruitment.
A key indicator, worthy of approbation, was Xu’s efforts to get the GE engineer abroad, as the MSS prefers to operate within China, a third-country or where their officers are afforded diplomatic immunity. In this instance, Xu was operating under a commercial cover legend and wanted no part of operating in the U.S. where he would be vulnerable to arrest.
What he wasn’t counting on was the GE engineer to be cooperating with the FBI and that the United States and Belgium would collaborate in a scenario where the end-result was Xu’s arrest, subsequent extradition, and conviction in the U.S. federal court.