The Federal Bureau of Investigation's decision to make a strikingly cheesy, obviously low-budget, half-hour-long video offering U.S. students in China advice on how to avoid inadvertently becoming a spy might strike some as odd. Do people really need advice on how not to spy?
Apparently they do. The FBI video (embedded below) may seem silly, but it is closely based on a real-life story: That of Glenn Duffie Shriver, a Michigan native arrested for attempting to provide national defense information to PRC intelligence officers in 2010.
Shriver's case didn't draw national attention at the time, though Jeff Stein, then of The Washington Post, did write about it in his SpyTalk column. Stein pointed to reports in the Grand Rapids Press that spoke of an "alleged cover-up of involvement with a foreign government."
"Shriver’s arrest on June 22 is just the latest in a virtual tsunami of prosecutions against suspected Chinese agents in the past two years," Stein wrote. "Many cases are hidden and ongoing," he added, later arguing that, unlike the cases of Russian moles during the Cold War, the cases of Chinese spies "reveal a long-term, even plodding drive by Beijing to acquire U.S. technical and economic — more than political — secrets by any means necessary."
A couple of years later, Washingtonian Magazine offered a long account of Shriver's case. It told the story of a good-looking, athletic man from Michigan who went to Shanghai looking for work after he graduated college. Fluent in Mandarin, he "answered an ad in English offering to pay someone with a background in Asian studies to write a paper on U.S./China relations concerning Taiwan and North Korea." He was paid $120 for the essay, and later introduced to two men who he realized were "intelligence officers."
His new sources in the Chinese intelligence community suggested that Shriver try to join the CIA, which he attempted, repeatedly. "To have a spy inside America’s intelligence agency from the get-go offered unique opportunities to Beijing," David Wise wrote for the Washingtonian. "He would likely rise undetected within the ranks of the CIA. In fact, such a mole was every intelligence agency’s dream." In total, he was paid almost $70,000 by the Chinese intelligence communities, Wise reports, and he met with his handlers around 20 times.
At some point during the process, American intelligence officials became aware of Shriver's links to the Chinese. He was arrested in 2010 as he was about to get on a plane to South Korea. He was held under charges for lying to the CIA before eventually pleading guilty to espionage charges in 2012. He was sentenced to four years.
Shriver remains in prison today. Speaking from a jail cell in another FBI video, Shriver explains: "If someone is offering you money and it feels like you don't have to do anything for that money, then there’s probably a hook in there that you're not seeing."
While much of the focus on China's intelligence community now focuses on the cyber-espionage threat from Beijing, the FBI video is a reminder that more old-fashioned ways of spying aren't redundant yet. Whether a half-hour long, clearly-shot-in-Washington-D.C. video will change their mind remains unclear.