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Commentary: Love story or Chinese spy maneuver?

Published March 16, 2014 4:21 pm

Illicit affair led to security breach
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Catherine A. Traywick

Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON — Theirs was an unconventional love story. He was a 59-year-old, married defense contractor with a top security clearance. She was a 27-year-old Chinese national with a student visa.

They met at a defense conference in Hawaii, where he lived, and began an illicit, long-distance romance that lasted nearly three years and saw him give her reams of classified U.S. military secrets.

But like all good love stories, this one ends unhappily. Last week, Benjamin Bishop pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of unlawfully transmitting and retaining classified national defense information. No charges have been brought against his girlfriend, whose identity has not been made public.

When the couple began the ill-fated love affair, Bishop was working in cyber defense at the U.S. Pacific Command, and the young woman was attending graduate school in the United States on a J-1 visa.

Their courtship was unusual from the beginning: According to an FBI affidavit, she repeatedly asked Bishop not to give her classified information, but nevertheless persisted in asking him questions about his work at Pacific Command.

For obvious reasons, various media have branded her a Chinese "honeytrap," fueling speculation that she's actually a spy who seduced Bishop in order to gain access to sensitive military information.

Who needs sophisticated hacker groups, after all, when you have 27-year-old co-eds? FBI Special Agent Scott Freeman acknowledged in an affidavit that that the young woman may have attended the conference in Hawaii "in order to target individuals such as Bishop."

But in court, Bishop's attorney, Birney Bervar, characterized the couple's exchange of secret information as an act of love, not espionage.

Let's hope that's true. Because it seems that Bishop just can't quit this woman. After being arrested and jailed last year, U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi released him to a residential halfway house on the condition that he not contact his girlfriend. So, naturally, he wrote her some love letters, sending them by email and post including, according to a court document, the ominous warning, "I take a risk in sending mail to you. Please do not reveal it to anyone." He was soon remanded back to prison.

If Bishop is convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. Nocharges have been filed against his mysterious girlfriend. No word yet on why she asked her beau to collect classified information for her.

But the romantic in us really wants to believe it's just research for her dissertation.