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U.S. officials prepare to thwart Chinese spying at Singapore summit

The Chinese have used everything from bugged hotel keys to “friendship” pins to spy on Americans — and they’re getting better at it all the time.
by Courtney Kube, Carol E. Lee, Ken Dilanian and Andrea Mitchell /  / Updated 
Image: A view shows the Capella Hotel, the venue for the June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, on Singapore's resort island of Sentosa
The Capella Hotel on Singapore's resort island of Sentosa is the venue for next week's summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.via Reuters

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WASHINGTON — China may not have a seat at the table during President Donald Trump's upcoming nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but U.S. officials say they are preparing to counter the Chinese spies they expect to be all over Singapore next week seeking inside information on the talks.

Chinese espionage against the U.S. has become more pervasive than that of any other adversary, current and former U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News, and the Singapore summit is the latest spy-vs.-spy battleground.

The Chinese, who have been known to bug everything from hotel keys to the gifts given to American visitors, are expected to deploy their increasingly sophisticated repertoire of intelligence gathering techniques, both human and electronic, in Singapore.

Areas of concern for the U.S. at the summit include:

  • U.S. officials are concerned China has recruited informants among the waiters and other staff in Singapore’s restaurants and bars, who are paid to eavesdrop on American customers and report back to their Chinese handlers.
  • Officials also expect electronic surveillance of the summit meeting sites. Americans will sweep for bugs in rooms at the Capella Hotel that could be used for side discussions, and could erect tents inside hotel meeting rooms to block any concealed cameras from viewing classified documents.
  • Chinese intelligence agencies have shown the ability to penetrate mobile phones even when they are off, and U.S. officials are now told to take their batteries out when they are concerned about eavesdropping, according to a U.S. intelligence official.

"Chinese intelligence collection could be amped up around the summit," said Jeremy Bash, an NBC News analyst who was chief of staff to CIA Director Leon Panetta. "They have prioritized surveillance in recent years and their technical prowess has really advanced."

For years, the Chinese have engaged in a massive effort to recruit human spies in the West, and can call on an army of skilled hackers to gather intelligence from the web.

But recently Chinese intelligence agencies have grown more creative and adept, U.S. officials say, posing an increasing threat to America’s secrets.

“China remains a particularly aggressive espionage actor and is using increasingly sophisticated technological platforms to carry out its objectives,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the DNI’s new counterintelligence agency.

According to three U.S. officials, in one recent case a top U.S. official working in China repeatedly had trouble with his hotel key card. He had to replace it several times at the front desk because it wouldn’t open his door.

He brought one of the key cards back to the U.S., where security officials found a microphone embedded inside, according to the U.S. officials.

The Chinese have placed listening and tracking devices in chips embedded in credit cards, key chains, jewelry, and even event credentials, the officials said, often with the intent of capturing secret conversations among American officials.

Image: Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9.Damir Sagolj / Reuters

In advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2017 meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s south Florida estate, White House officials received detailed briefings on how the Chinese would try to spy on them during the visit "in every possible way,” said an official who was part of the visit.

And U.S. officials “swept all of our phones afterward” to check if they were infiltrated by the Chinese, the official added.

Seven months later when Trump traveled to Beijing, White House officials were given more extensive briefings, according to officials who were on the trip, in which they were told to assume the Chinese would be tracking, taping and watching them the entire time they were in the country.

During the visit, the officials say the Chinese gave the U.S. delegation pins that the Americans called their friendship pins. But members of the delegation were not allowed to wear the pins into a secure area because security officials warned they likely had embedded listening devices.

The officials said their belongings were rifled through while they were not in their hotel rooms, as happened to U.S. officials during previous presidential trips to China. Some senior members of Trump’s delegation packed carry-on bags with anything they didn’t want the Chinese to see and took the bags wherever they went, including out to dinner in restaurants, according to officials.

"All’s fair in love, war and espionage."

Even inside the U.S., the surveillance can be brazen. During a meeting between senior U.S. military officials and a Chinese military delegation several months ago at the Pentagon, one of the Chinese generals didn’t hide his efforts to record the meeting, pointing his large watch in the direction of the Americans whenever they spoke, according to two officials familiar with details of the meeting.

That story is among the anecdotes detailed in a recent internal report by the Defense Department and the intelligence community about the threat of surveillance inside the Pentagon.

Defense Department spokesman Chris Sherwood declined to discuss the report, saying, "We don't comment on intel nor on specific threat reports.”

According to Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “all’s fair in love, war and espionage.”

Russel, who is now vice president at the Asia Society, added: “There’s an awful lot that the Chinese do to us that we do, or try to do, to them. But as technology improves, the capabilities of the Chinese to collect become increasingly sophisticated.

“The real story is the incredible acceleration of technology, artificial intelligence, data gathering and monitoring.”

Image: Daniel Russel
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel.Ahn Young-joon / AP

Cellphones can also be vulnerable. After President Barack Obama’s first trip to China in 2009, one of his national security advisers had to throw away a Blackberry device because the Chinese had penetrated it, a former administration official said.

Trump’s reported use of non-secure cell phones in the White House is a massive security risk, experts say. Because smart phones can be turned into bugs and location tracking devices, Obama was not allowed to have one until 2016, and even then, he joked about how little functionality it had.

It’s been widely reported that Trump has rebuffed efforts by security officials to get him to use a secure mobile device, and he has been using standard-issue smart phones for Twitter and to place calls.

The Washington Post reported this week that the Department of Homeland Security has found evidence of the use of sophisticated technology to intercept cell phone calls outside the White House, a type of technology that is available commercially and U.S. officials say Chinese and other foreign intelligence agencies regularly use.

One former senior U.S. official said the Chinese have good intelligence collection operations in Singapore.

“What they would want to get is to know what people in the meetings said and what happened,” the official said, and to get inside U.S. government officials’ phones and computers.

During other trips to China during the Obama administration, U.S. officials took increasingly strict steps to minimize any intelligence gathering from their meetings or devices. The Chinese would put microphones in U.S. officials’ hotel rooms, credentials and the friendship pins featuring each country’s flag, officials said.

Officials were not allowed to bring those items into any meetings or secure area, instead leaving them outside those rooms, and always leaving them behind in China. U.S. officials also would leave any personal electronic devices on a government plane while in the country. The Chinese would similarly spy on reporters traveling with the president.

U.S. government employees based in China are now told to presume their residences are wired for sound and video, and that the Chinese have recorded what they say or do at home, according to officials. Cabinet and other government officials are briefed on China’s spying techniques, including the possibility that their hotel rooms could be wired.

U.S. officials said the presumption on any visit to China or any interaction with Chinese officials outside the country is that Beijing would be trying to collect intelligence on the Americans or otherwise compromise them.

Image: A man (right, wearing blue tie) identified by local Hong Kong media as former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee
A man (right, wearing blue tie) identified by Hong Kong media as former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee stands in front of a member of security at the unveiling of a Leonardo da Vinci's painting at the Christie's showroom in Hong Kong.Anthony Wallace / AFP - Getty Images file

Just this week, two U.S. intelligence officials appeared in court to face charges of spying for China, and a third suspected Chinese agent, former CIA officer Jerry Lee, faces trial next year.

American officials fear the Chinese are making use of a massive trove of federal personal data they stole in 2015 to identify and target vulnerable intelligence officers, two U.S. officials told NBC News.

"China poses the most sophisticated counterintelligence threat to the U.S. of any other country right now,” said Bash. “And their intelligence gathering is probably at its highest peak in a long time."

CORRECTION (June 8, 2018, 9:55 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the hotel that will be swept for bugs during the summit. It is the Capella Hotel, not Capello.

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