US diplomat arrested over contacts with Chinese spies

The State Department Building is pictured in Washington.
The State Department Building is pictured in Washington. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US diplomat who allegedly took tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from Chinese intelligence agents was charged on Wednesday (March 29) with lying to investigators over those contacts.

The Department of Justice said Candace Marie Claiborne, 60, knew that the two Chinese men she had regular contact with while working for the US State Department in China and other countries were from the Chinese security services, and that the money they gave her was in exchange for US secrets.

She took cash and an iPhone for herself, but most of the funds went to an unidentified man half her age with whom she lived in Beijing and Shanghai.

The Chinese agents paid for his fashion school tuition, apartment rental, a sewing machine, vacations, and other needs as requested by Claiborne, according to a complaint unveiled in the US federal district court in Washington, DC.

"Candace Marie Claiborne is a US 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 McCord in a statement.

"Claiborne used her position and her access to sensitive diplomatic data for personal profit." The Justice Department's initial charges against her were limited to obstructing the investigation into her case and lying to agents.

Claiborne, who has worked for the State Department since 1999 and had significant financial problems, was arrested Tuesday and pleaded not guilty in her first court appearance Wednesday, according to the Justice Department.

The complaint says Claiborne, a State Department office management specialist, knew at least one of the agents of the Ministry of State Security as early as 2007, and the second since 2012.

She knew they were Chinese government agents but "appeared motivated by the profitable nature of her information-sharing relationship" with them, it said.

But the complaint says little about what she did in return for the money and gifts. At one point it says she provided the Chinese agents with non-classified information possibly sourced over the Internet.

Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the offenses a breach of the "public trust." "When a public servant is suspected of potential misconduct or federal crimes that violate the public trust, we vigorously investigate such claims," he said.

"The Department of State is firmly committed to investigating and working with the Department of Justice and our other law enforcement partners to investigate any allegations of criminal activity and bring those who commit crimes to justice."