From China with love: why spies still love a good honeytrap

Government officials being seduced into revealing secrets is nothing new, as the Dutch ambassador seemingly at the heart of a new scandal should have known


When Ron Keller, a veteran of hot spots such as Moscow, Kiev and Ankara, was appointed Dutch ambassador to Beijing last December, it was a vote of absolute trust by his government: here was a safe pair of hands for a complex posting at the heart of the world’s emerging economic superpower.

Although new to China, Keller must have been well aware, especially given his seniority, that foreign diplomats arriving there were routinely advised against relationships with “local staff” because of the risk of being “compromised” by agents of the Chinese government; in other words, honeytraps.

While that may seem far-fetched in a post-cold war world, consider this: British prime minister Theresa May’s less experienced officials were warned by UK government security experts only last month to avoid the lure of “Chinese spies offering sex” during the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

They were issued with temporary mobile phones and email addresses. They were warned to report any gifts but particularly electronic devices such as memory sticks, Sim cards or on-the-go chargers and told it was more than likely that their hotel bedrooms were bugged for audio . . . and video.

One bemused official said at the time: “We’ve been told that if you feel uncomfortable about people seeing you naked, you should get changed under your bedclothes.”

Most of all though they were warned about the oldest lure of all: the honeytrap, men or women, an undiscriminating destroyer of high-flying careers.

That emphasis was understandable. And you don’t have to turn back the pages to Britain’s secretary of state for war John Profumo and his 1961 liaison with 19-year-old Christine Keeler – who was simultaneously involved, it turned out, with Soviet naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov – to see why.

Intelligence officer

The most recent reference point for “indiscretion” – also widely described in this case as “idiocy” – was in 2008, when a senior aide to Labour prime minister Gordon Brown had his Blackberry stolen by a woman he met at a disco in Shanghai and with whom he had gone back to his hotel.

The following morning he reported to the special branch that his phone was lost. It later transpired that when the “couple” returned to his room, the woman drugged him, stole his phone complete with emails, lifted documents from his briefcase and disappeared without a trace.

She was later alleged to have been a Chinese intelligence officer – a claim dismissed by Beijing as “a smear”.

Sceptics who ask what China’s extensive security apparatus could hope to have learned from a mere aide – senior and close to Brown as this particular man was – usually misunderstand Beijing’s methods of intelligence gathering.

These typically involve extracting huge quantities of information from an equally huge array of sources, not all high-risk or high-value, for cross-referencing as an aide to foreign policy decision-making – otherwise known as carefully calculated and frequently illegal fishing.

Fishing expeditions

The most tragic example of where such “fishing expeditions” can lead was a Japanese diplomat based at his Shanghai consulate in China who committed suicide in 2005 after being lured into a honeytrap by a hostess at a karaoke bar and then blackmailed; he later sank into depression as a result.

So for those who believe that honeytraps are as much a forgotten artefact of the cold war as poison-tipped umbrellas, the fact is that only the geopolitical backdrop has changed.

To reflect the new world order, when it comes to sexual blackmail, From Russia with Love has been superseded by “From China with Love” . . . with every bit as impressive a success rate.

None of these stories, of course, would have been news to 58-year-old ambassador Ron Keller as he arrived in Beijing from Schiphol airport just 10 months ago to take over before Christmas from his long-time colleague, Aart Jacobi, who, as it happens, was moving on to the top job in Tokyo.

Yet from earlier this year, Keller – who is unmarried – is alleged to have formed a relationship with a Chinese woman on his staff, allowing her to visit him at his private residence on numerous occasions. Their liaison became, according to Dutch media reports, “the talk of the embassy”.

Many reports describe their relationship quite openly as a “sexual” one, and, most damaging of all if true, some even go as far as suggesting that the two exchanged compromising photographs.

The story became a full-scale scandal this week when the foreign ministry in The Hague confirmed that Keller had been suspended because he could not remain in his post during an investigation authorised “following a complaint”, the details and source of which remain unspecified.

For the moment, there’s no certainty, of course, that what happened to Keller was a honeytrap.

His may well have been a relationship without puppeteers, much less strings. What is certain though is that everything about it would have run counter to Keller’s very expensive training – and still he went ahead.

Keller is back in the Netherlands now, and the “colleagues” who question him will be hoping that his answer is the simpler of two murky alternatives: love, not espionage. In any case, he’s unlikely to return to China, and his illustrious diplomatic career may well be over.

One way or another, an increase in the use of honeytraps is in line with what many western governments, and particularly the US, see as increasingly aggressive use of “asymmetric tactics” such as industrial and economic espionage and cyberwarfare by or on behalf of the Chinese government.

A report for Congress last year described China as “a major perpetrator” of cyberespionage, while James Andrew Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington claimed China was behind “most of” the theft of US intellectual property, costing around $100 billion a year.

China’s brazenness

However, even the United States can be surprised by what it regards as China’s brazenness. A classic example was when secretary of commerce Carlos Gutierrez – a key international trade negotiator for the US – had the contents of a laptop copied while it was left unattended on a trip to Beijing. Information found on it was then used to try to hack into US government computers.

But when it comes to honeytraps, just as the UK will never forget Profumo, so the US will never forget the infamous Katrina Leung, a Chinese citizen who emigrated to America in the 1970s – and became, for want of a better description, the doyenne of Chinese honeytraps.

Leung became a US citizen and agreed to spy for the US, specifically the FBI, against China. In reality, however, she was a double agent for the Chinese ministry of state security and seduced her FBI handler who for 20 years fed her classified material which she passed on to Beijing.

Leung – whose code name was “parlor maid” – was not arrested until 2003, by which time she had single-handedly contaminated almost three decades of US intelligence. In the end, due to “prosecutorial misconduct”, she spent just 18 months under house arrest and three months in jail.

FBI counter-intelligence specialist Randall Thomas conceded in court papers at the time: “The FBI must now reassess all of its actions and intelligence analyses based on her reporting.” That is always the appalling vista.

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