An alleged Chinese spy operating in California's Bay Area during the Obama administration got so close to Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) that federal investigators had to step in and alert the congressman.
The suspected foreign agent, Christine Fang, "targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the Bay Area and across the country who had the potential to make it big on the national stage" as part of a years-long operation run by China's main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015, Axios reported Monday night.
She first came into contact with Swalwell and other up-and-coming politicos through her role as the head of two different student groups at California State University East Bay, where she enrolled in 2011. Using her position in the groups, Fang gained access to political events and fundraisers for several prominent Democrats in the area, including Democratic California Reps. Swalwell, Ro Khanna, Judy Chu, and former Rep. Mike Honda.
Fang became closest with Swalwell, Axios reported, and by 2014, had "developed close ties" with his congressional office. She worked as a "bundler" for him and other local candidates, helping him connect with big donors and deepening his ties with target communities, and even successfully planted an intern in his office.
Then in 2015, "amid a widening counterintelligence probe, federal investigators became so alarmed by Fang's behavior and activities that ... they alerted Swalwell to their concerns — giving him what is known as a defensive briefing," the report said.
"Swalwell immediately cut off all ties to Fang, according to a current U.S. intelligence official, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing," the report added.
Fang's targeting of Swalwell shows China's long-game strategy of embedding people with politicians before they reach the national stage in hopes of influencing them towards pro-Beijing policies later, Axios noted. Swalwell was elected to Congress in 2012 and in 2015 was assigned to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, serving as the lead Democrat on the subcommittee on CIA oversight.
The report added: "Even though U.S. officials do not believe Fang received or passed on classified information, the case 'was a big deal, because there were some really, really sensitive people that were caught up' in the intelligence network, a current senior U.S. intelligence official said."
Swalwell's office provided Axios with the following statement before publication of the report: "Rep. Swalwell, long ago, provided information about this person — whom he met more than eight years ago, and whom he hasn't seen in nearly six years — to the FBI. To protect information that might be classified, he will not participate in your story."
Sometime in 2015, Fang abruptly left the United States without warning. Officials believe Chinese authorities called off her covert duties and had her return home.
In addition to her various connections to Bay Area politicians, Fang developed romantic or sexual relationships with at least two unnamed Midwestern mayors, with one of the sexual encounters being captured by FBI surveillance.
In an op-ed Thursday, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe revealed that Chinese spies have targeted U.S. lawmakers more than any other country, including Russia and Iran.