Former FBI agents Edward Appel, Richard Smith, Tom Parker and T. Van Magers describe how an FBI agent targets and develops an "asset," how valuable this source can be in counterintelligence work and how the Parlor Maid case exposed the complexities and dangers in the relationship between sources and agents.
FBI Special Agent, 1973-1997
Take us sort of to Quantico 101 here. Somebody comes in the door who's going to work FCI [foreign counterintelligence]. What are they taught about assets? What's an asset?
… In an ideal sense, I guess, a good counterintelligence asset would be a person who is very familiar with the foreign intelligence officer and tells you all about who they are and what they do. But it really runs the gamut from someone who simply observes the person, to someone who's really a part of that intelligence service and has elected to be recruited in place, if you will, or provide information while still acting in a capacity of a foreign intelligence officer. So an asset can be any of the above.
And how do you develop one?
Well, obviously, it relates to personal relationships. You might identify the people that a foreign intelligence officer is in touch with and, from that group of people, select one or more that you would approach, and you would find out what they're willing to tell you. And over a series of interviews, a series of contacts, you might simply ask them questions and see how far they're willing to go in answering them. And [you] compare what you know from your investigation against what they tell you, and you balance the two. Obviously, if they continuously lie to you, if they're not willing to talk to you, if they're motivated only by personal greed or money, you might want to take what they say with a grain of salt.
Hopefully, over time, you could develop a trusting relationship with that person where you're convinced that they are telling you more than they are that foreign intelligence officer. So that's a balance you also have to maintain.
How do you know if someone is … a double agent? Because it's so utterly important.
It's very, very important, and I think deception analysis is at the root of this. Basically, I think most of us have a gut feeling one way or the other, and a good detective has a better gut feeling. FBI agents are excellent detectives.
But you also have to be systematic about how you find out what the other side is doing. What's their order of battle? Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing? And [you] compare that with what you're told, so that you continually want to assess what your source tells you against your other sources. It means that you have to have a range of knowledge.
And this frequently does not take place in the hands of the handler -- in the case of the FBI, the FBI agent who handles the source -- but rather it takes place in the analytical unit at the FBI headquarters in Washington, where they compare everything they know from all of the source with what this particular source is telling us, and then try to see. Is this person telling us the truth? Is this person giving us anything of value? And how can we weigh that against the overall pictures of the Chinese counterintelligence operations.
… How does that relationship between Washington and the handler work?
It works very well. Actually, in order to make the source have some value, the handler has to document what the source says. There are some cases in which the source has to provide documents from an intelligence service, if they have access to them. If they can't provide those documents, or they won't provide them, that's a clue that they might be under the control of foreign intelligence service, more so than the control of the counterintelligence service.
In some instances we want to direct the activity of a source, to tell them to find out something, to ask a question of their handler on the other side. And in those cases, obviously, you already know what you want to find out and hopefully you ask the question directly and at the end of the day you weigh the answer against things you already know. The more trusted the source, the more sensitive the questions.
In many cases, you can't ask a question in a counterintelligence investigation without revealing classified information. You hope that that classified information isn't turned around and then provided to the other side, to the other intelligence officers that might be in touch with your source. And that's something that you always have to be careful about, because if you ask that question, you may be telling the other side a great deal, more than you want to. …
FBI Special Agent, 1970-1995
Why would somebody help you?
Well, the old patriotism sure helps -- I mean, they think they're doing the right thing. You're trying to portray a situation where if they help you, it assists the United States, it assists the government, it assists the FBI. Most people, believe it or not, are cooperative and furnish the information that's required.
Now, that's a long way from actively helping you out. In other words, if someone is in contact with an official and you ask them about that contact, they may be cooperative. It's another step to turn that person back at them for a long-term role in interacting with that official and providing information. It's a different step, it's a more difficult step. Because the person may not have the time, may not have the interest, may be concerned about the long-term contact. We're talking about shades of things. …
When you deal with these people, they might have contacts with the other side that you justify because you may have started [the] process. But at some point, you've got to figure out whether you're giving more than you're getting. And if you're being played more than you're playing somebody else, then it's not worth it. … The idea is to win, to get information and not to give information more than you're getting. …
FBI Special Agent, 1970-1994
The motivation for [some] individuals to potentially become either assets or double agents generally is a matter of either whatever political interests or political motivations or political problems they might have. And sometimes it's just pure money, just outright payments. …
In many, many cases -- and only experience becomes the barrier to falling into this trap -- a potential informant or a potential asset, especially one that has designs on appearing to be a double agent, is certainly going to sell themselves like a used car salesman would sell a lemon on the parking lot. They're going to embellish, they're going to exaggerate, they're going to place themselves on a pedestal in terms of the value that they can bring to the FBI. And in an agent's early career, many times they haven't had the experience yet to understand that, to see through that. …
FBI Special Agent, 1973-1997
So a J.J. Smith would see a Katrina Leung. What would he see in Katrina Leung [as a potential asset]? Why? Why would she be of interest?
Well, obviously, it's all about access. In the Chinese system, high-ranking Communist Party officials and intelligence officers are the people that the counterintelligence service is interested in. And without addressing this particular case directly, because a great deal of it is classified, I would say that what you really want from a person like this is that they have an "in" with intelligence officers, they have an "in" with high-ranking Communist Party people, and they can tell you what those people are talking about, what their motivations are, what kinds of things they want to find out -- what questions are they asking?
Where are they going? What are they doing? And it can help the counterintelligence service understand, what is that foreign intelligence service? What is that foreign Communist Party doing that would be of interest to counterintelligence?
These are all the same talents or connections that would also probably make that asset look like a very good prospect for the Chinese also.
Right. And obviously somebody who can play in an influential circle, shall we say, becomes of interest to both sides. Frequently, in the counterintelligence business, the degree to which an asset or source has access to the intelligence officers on the other side will help determine how valuable they are as a source. …
FBI Special Agent, 1969-2002
Operating a source always is going to be a value judgment of how much you give the informant in order to get your results from the informant. You try to make sure you give less than you get. You hope for complete control from the source, where the source does exactly what you ask them to do, and nothing more, nothing less, and gets the information you want, brings it back to you, and tells no one else. My experience is that … no source runs perfectly. Even those, even if you ran your brother-in-law as a source, there would be some issues involved. I mean, I don't care who it is, there are going to be issues with a source, and your effort is to get as much information as you can, and minimize those problems. …
How do you, in your capacity at headquarters, know whether somebody like Parlor Maid is a double agent? Or do you just automatically assume she probably is working both sides of the street?
… You have got to give information in order to get information. And your ideal is to give next to no information to get a lot. Obviously the worst thing is when you're giving a lot and get none. Generally you're somewhere toward the middle, with the emphasis on getting more than you give.
I mean, according to the presidential executive order, if you have information that reveals methods and sources, it's classified. The fact that we have an investigative interest in Joe Wong -- pick a name -- could be classified. … But if you're asking an asset to provide information about Joe Wong, then the asset knows that Joe is of investigative interest, so you have classified information. You just try to limit it.
Controllability is an issue. How much are you convinced that you're able to know everything the asset does, and be sure that the asset does exactly what you say? No more, no less? Not many assets come under that. Parlor Maid certainly didn't.
In what sense?
When she meets as many people as she does, there is no way you could direct and control whom she meets, what she asks them, what she gets from them. She's developing guanxi. She's developing her network of friends. That certainly doesn't hurt her business, but it's an advantage to the FBI as well. …
Is the J.J./Katrina story unique in your experience, the love affair, the whole thing?
… Fortunately it's not something that happens often, but one time is too many. You develop a vested interest in your sources because sources are so important to successful operations. You want your source to be good. You know, maybe that's an incentive not to look too closely. I would hope that we do, but that's one reason why you're supposed to have independent people do the evaluation. You don't evaluate your source yourself, because you can't look at it in an unprejudiced manner. You have to have somebody who doesn't have a bias look and say, "Look, we've got some issues here. I read the reports that you've provided of what the source has given us. I read the approval for what you've given the source, the passage information", if it's that. "It doesn't seem to me that we're getting value received for information spent."
But that was never the case with--
Not ever, not with Parlor Maid. It's difficult not to have a relationship with your source. Having it go into a sexual relationship seldom happens. More often than not, it would be a situation where it's financial, where, you know, you're interested. You want to help the source. …
It's a pretty hard-hearted person who deals as closely with a source as you have to have a successful source, particularly in Chinese, who doesn't develop a caring relationship and, as a result, be at least somewhat susceptible to being manipulated if that's not reciprocated. I mean, if I ran organized crime, I might find it a little bit easier not to identify with my sources. But, you know, in Chinese work where there is no quick response to a source, where you have a long, developing relationship before it's successful, you're going to care about the person. And because the success of the source is directly related to your own success, you're going to hope that the source is successful. …
Assets can bring you success, but more often than not they bring you trouble as well. You have to be very careful in handling assets. You have to be able to have some method of objectivity in evaluating [them]. You have to be convinced, or be able to convince someone that your long-range plan -- with the Chinese it has to be long-range -- has the potential, at least, for getting more information than you give up. …
You have to be willing to understand the background of those, with whom you're dealing. You have to accept that in guanxi you're going to have persons that may not do things the way you would want them to, but that's the same thing with a criminal informant who, if he's never engaged in any criminal activity, probably isn't going to be a very good criminal informer. …
You have to understand that a person who does well with Chinese has to have some sort of relationship with his Chinese handler, or with someone else, and that may make it not a black/white issue but a very gray issue.
home + introduction + the "parlor maid" case + how china spies + inside fbi counterintelligence
interviews + join the discussion + producer's chat
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
posted january 15, 2004
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation