Washington's spy paranoia

What seems like networking can turn out to be something else entirely. One former congressional staffer, who worked for a member of the House International Relations Committee, told me that a few years ago he was offered a cash payment equivalent to his annual salary to pass along committee documents related to Taiwan.

“This guy just called out of the blue and asked me to lunch,” the former staffer recalled. The “guy” was an American who had previously worked as a congressional chief of staff. “And that was the offer he made—my current salary, in cash.”

The staffer, who had a security clearance, turned down the offer and reported the contact to his security officer, who said the guy was “on the radar” of American intelligence. The same staffer said he was once asked for classified information by a Malaysian embassy official; a friend who worked for a member of the Agriculture Committee was told to watch out for Chinese spies who supposedly hung out at the Hawk ’n’ Dove, a Capitol Hill bar, to eavesdrop on staffers’ conversations.

Staffers with security clearances are trained to spot this sort of thing, but those without clearance receive little in the way of security training. They have access to power and are prone to gossip. Many come in as interns, or fresh from a local campaign. A second former congressional staffer recalled repeatedly being asked on dates by an attractive woman from the Israeli embassy who had also been out with many of his friends. When they finally did go out, he couldn’t shake the feeling it might be “an old-fashioned honeypot scene,” he said, and declined her offer to come home with him.