Not long ago, a special agent – working for a secretive agency that’s in the news a lot these days – asked me to take a Chinese man out to dinner, ply him with wine, and help to “flip” him.
Unfortunately, all that I knew – and know – about espionage I learned from James Bond.
And that’s exactly what was so concerning about the situation. Let me explain…
While I was wearing unicorn print house pants
A few years ago, the doorbell rang one morning while I was working at home, in a leafy suburb of Washington, D.C.
I answered the door, and ushered in a well-dressed man and woman who introduced themselves as agents of a well-known American federal agency that investigates (and which shall remain unnamed here).
The two good agents, through smart sleuthwork, had uncovered that a car registered in my name had recently been parked in the driveway of a house a few minutes away. Did I know why my car was there? They asked.
Well, yes, my wife and I owned the nearby house. Our tenants – more on them in a moment – weren’t taking care of the place, and the property management company wasn’t doing their job. So I drove (in the American suburbs, people only walk on treadmills, or if they want to get run over) over to see what was going on. And I parked my car in the driveway of the house I owned.
Ah, the agents said. Since a two-second web search would reveal that we’d owned the house for more than twelve years, I assumed (hoped) that this wasn’t news to them – their feigned surprise notwithstanding. They continued: Have you frequently visited your tenants? What is the nature of your relationship with them?
As I answered their questions, it emerged that our tenant, Mr Lo from China, was a “person of interest” to the agency. This meant that Mr Lo hadn’t been charged with doing anything wrong. But he was on the radar of the authorities as worthy of attention or concern.
Mr Lo, the journalist?
Mr Lo worked for a Chinese science and technology newspaper, and had been introduced to us by our former tenant, who was also from China and had worked for the same publication. Mr Lo’s predecessor was a model tenant, and as long as he paid the rent on time, we were delighted to have Mr Lo take over the lease.
After a get-to-meet-you dinner at a local Chinese (of course) restaurant – featuring linguistic awkwardness and mediocre American suburbia faux-Szechuan cuisine – Mr Lo and his family moved in. For the first few months, all was good. But then our property management company, after a routine check-up visit, gave him poor marks – which had led to the two very (overly) friendly agents sitting on my sofa.
Everyone wants something…
The agency – my visitors told me – was very eager to learn more about Mr Lo and his activities. I assumed this had something to do with China trying to get its hands on American science and technology – and that Mr Lo, properly motivated, would spill secrets about China stealing American intellectual property.
To help incentivise Mr Lo, the agents had uncovered his pressure point: he had a high-school aged daughter, and he wanted more than anything for her to attend university in the U.S. (not unlike millions other Chinese parents). But these two agents could easily block the approval of the requisite visa and immigration documentation for her to study at a U.S. college.
The agents suggested that due to my unique relationship with Mr Lo – a mutual interest in ensuring that Mr Lo’s toilet didn’t leak, I suppose – I was the perfect person to encourage him to talk with my new friends. Heady with the idea of getting a foreign agent to flip – I was ready to put on my tux and order martinis – I said I’d be thrilled to help. The agents left, promising to get back in touch once the groundwork was laid.
A glass of wine, a glass of… espionage
A few weeks later, the agents invited me and my wife (who I’d brought into the scheme) for a cup of coffee. Their plan: We invite Mr Lo out for a nice dinner (courtesy of the agency) and have a glass or two of wine. We guide the conversation to children and college admissions. And we plant the seed. “Oh, your daughter will be applying soon to university? Hmm, how interesting. If you ever need any help with the whole visa thing, I know just the guy to call!”
And the guy to call would be our agent friend – who would then (I suppose) present an information-for-visa proposal. Mr Lo would talk, and his daughter would go to State U.
Would you do it?
How many normal people can say that they’ve helped flip a foreign agent? Not many. I wanted to be one of them.
My sensible wife thought otherwise. “What’s the upside?” she asked. At best, Mr Lo is drawn into the trap. I wouldn’t know what would happen – the agents would have no use for us at that point – but I’d have a good cocktail party story.
At worst, we lose a tenant. We’re put on the U.S. government’s “naughty child” list. And China – the most important country in the region of the world where we’re about to move to – blackballs me.
So I didn’t call the agents back. We never heard from them again.
Mr Lo’s house maintenance skills didn’t improve. I had a few unpleasant dreams about the house being impounded by the authorities after becoming the site of a federal investigation. In any case, we’d grown tired of the endless investment required of a middle-aged house sliding toward old age. A few months later, we sold the property. So my cocktail party story ends with a whimper.
I learned this
But the episode opened my eyes to a few realities.
- Don’t assume they know what they’re doing. This entire idea of me turning a Chinese intelligence agent (or someone who was just a regular journalist) was silly. But because it was presented as reasonable by an authority figure, it felt feasible. Think of your banker, your broker, your financial advisor… just because they should know what they’re doing doesn’t mean they do.
- Let them assume. For all I know – that is, what I was actually told – the agency was interested in Mr Lo because he was running a baseball card counterfeit ring in the basement. I connected the dots (China, technology, “person of interest”) myself, and the agents didn’t correct me. Perhaps in fact they were investigating (say) me, and poor Mr Lo was just a convenient tool. There’s a lot of potential in letting the other guy draw his own conclusions – and not correcting them if they’re wrong.
- Learn to use the power of silence. During a conversation, many people can’t bear silence, because silence equals awkwardness. In an effort to kill that uncomfortable quiet, they’ll say something – and usually it’s something revealing and interesting, as it’s uttered during a moment of conversational panic. I use this technique when I’m interviewing someone. The agents used it on me – though (I imagine) to little effect.
- Big organisations produce very uneven output. Many people tend to imagine that important organisations – like governments, banks and schools – are full of competent, smart people working together for the sake of their customers. But in reality, they’re microcosms of humanity… bubbling cauldrons of ambition and competition and smart people and less-smart people. And the output – like the scheme advanced for me – can be silly.
- Be very afraid. Big federal organisations – in almost whatever country – aren’t well equipped to protect you. If I was viewed as even a slightly credible line of defense against China stealing IP from the U.S…. well, then all is pretty much lost.