“Defectors often cause more difficulty than disinterested disbelievers.” Neal A. Maxwell
“I’ve always said, ‘I am a selector, I am not a defector’ – the first few phrases in English I learned. I said I hate ‘defector’; something defective about the people. It’s a bad word.” Mikhail Baryshnikov
“Let me die in the old uniform in which I fought my battles for freedom, May God forgive me for putting on another.” Benedict Arnold
Former CIA counterspy master James Angleton characterized counterintelligence as a ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’. Having come out of that world, I can certainly validate that sentiment. When a defector requests asylum in a country, officials and the media wonder whether he (or she) is lying. Intelligence officers, on the other hand, seek to determine exactly how much the person is lying. Lies are just assumed in this milieu.
Chinese-language anti-communist media and Twitter are abuzz with rumors that on February 10, 2021, a top-ranking Chinese official, Dong Jingwei (董经纬), defected to the US with his daughter, Dong Yang, via Hong Kong. It is further rumored that he delivered evidence to the Defense Intelligence Agency on the alleged Wuhan lab leak, which has led the US to put a renewed focus on investigating the origin of coronavirus. Dong is/was the vice minister of State Security in China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), also called Guoanbu, which is basically their version of the CIA. He has been heading counterintelligence operations there since April 2018, and, if these rumors are true, Dong is the highest ranking defector to date from China to the West.
In this week’s edition of More than Meets the Eye, I want to discuss the general process of defections, the possible implications of a defection, and the potential ramifications of this specific defection.
You may recall, in the MTMTE issue on 11 May, 2019 I wrote about the alleged/supposed defection of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp General Ali Nasiri. In that article I explain that former Iranian Brigadier General, Ali Nasiri, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), allegedly defected to the United States through an embassy in the region. He was the commander of a Counter Intelligence Unit, “Hazrate Seyed al-Shohada,” within the IRGC. He had with him a treasure trove of documents related to Iranian military and intelligence plans. Nasiri is undoubtedly the most significant and highest ranking Iranian defector since General Alireza Asgari in March 2007. Uncharacteristically, the Iranian regime acknowledged his defection a few days later.
What struck me most about that notable defection was how swiftly it moved into obscurity. I have not seen Nasiri’s name pop up again since writing that article. I have wanted to do a follow-up article, but there simply is nothing at the “collateral” level of intelligence that indicates anything more about him.
This week I would like to discuss what happens when a high-ranking individual defects to another country like the USA. Then I will follow it up next week with a discussion of these two disparate yet similar defections.
What happens when a defector defects?
I have often wondered what the process is. According to the CIA’s declassified document, entitled “What to do with Defectors” (published in 1961but not declassified until September 1995), there are some clearly established requirements for procedure when receiving a defector who declares himself to an official installation; they are found in the Inter-agency Defector Committee Operating Instructions under IDCOP 58/1.
Just to simplify things, here is a simple 4-step process that reception units go through when a “walk-in” defector appears at a western installation.
Step 1 – Conduct an initial analysis: assess for motivations and context
Step 2 – Devise an offer: risk assessment and incentives
Step 3 – Deliver the offer: targeting and outreach
Step 4 – Cross the line: reception, processing, and transitioning
This may be an oversimplification of the entire process, but it demonstrates what kinds of things a defector can expect when he/she decides to cross the line.
Why do Defectors defect?
The psychology and motivations of a defector are varied and complex. While defectors to the West often claim to have had a change of heart and a belief in freedom and democracy, the true motivation to leave one’s family, employment, and country can be quite different. Genuine defection typically requires one to come to the end of his rope. In defecting, the defector literally gives up everything in exchange for the promise of something with great value.
Most defections occur for pretty innocuous reasons. Few defectors actually defect over solely ideological reasons. Some may activate their apostasy due to a disagreement with a superior, marital problems, or the allure of material advantages in the West. Several defector’s sole impetus for their defection can be categorized as simply general unhappiness.
Motivations for defection range from being caught in corruption or criminal acts to professional rivalries to illicit love affairs. Infighting between rival political factions in Chinese Communist Party politics has driven many officials to defect for their own safety.
Defectors often exaggerate their importance or claim to know more than they really do. It is common practice for defectors to inflate their level of access or knowledge to make themselves appear more valuable to the country they wish to defect to. For example, Chinese defector Wang asserted himself as a higher level operative as he turned himself over to the Australian government. However, the Australian intelligence officers were able to see through his facade, probably due to his lack of knowledge of basic intelligence operations. Excitement and feelings of importance or significance are often factors used to recruit persons whose lives and jobs otherwise seem mundane.
The case of Dong Jingwei
In the case of Dong Jingwei, the taunting question is: Is this rumor true? Former Pentagon, State Department, and CIA expert Nicholas Eftimiades, author of Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics, called the report “exactly what it is, a rumor.” In the information warfare between Beijing and anti-communist overseas Chinese dissidents, these rumors are commonplace. Dr Han Lianchao (a defector after the Tiannamen Square situation) a former Chinese foreign ministry official turned pro-democracy activist in the US, claimed in public that Mr. Dong had defected. Nicholas Eftimiades called Dr. Han “a straight shooter, not known to exaggerate in any way or form…trusted for his integrity.” It seems likely that Dong Jingwei reached out to Lianchao to get some help, as they would not have been strangers to one another.
Initial questions and potential answers that come to my mind about Jingwei’s defection are:
- Why turn yourself into the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) rather than the State Department, which would have immediately contacted the CIA and the FBI? This says volumes about how the Chinese view the two premier intelligence and enforcement agencies in the United States. In a nutshell, Jingwei did not trust them. DIA didn’t seem anxious to turn Jingwei over to these agencies either.
- Why would Dr. Han Lianchao take Jingwei’s defection public? It was to secure Jingwei’s status as a political asylum seeker, making it near impossible to return Dong Jingwei back to China over some quid pro quo arrangement. In other words, Jingwei was getting some coaching from somewhere and my guess is Dr. Han Lianchao.
- What is Dong Jingwei offering in exchange for asylum? Dong allegedly supplied the U.S. with “information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that changed the stance of the Biden administration concerning the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Dong is also alleged to have provided details on Chinese government assets and sources within the United States.
Dong supposedly has extremely embarrassing and damaging information about the US intelligence community and several government officials. His information is estimated to be in the volume of ‘terabytes of data’ that he is providing to the DIA.
These are just a few of the things that seem to be more substantiated, but the rumors are in the scores of revelations. My estimation is there will be efforts to try to pull Jingwei out from under the protection of the DIA for the good of the State. This will get murkier before it gets settled. For now, it looks like Jingwei made a good decision to go with the DIA, which will seriously impede the efforts of both Homeland Security and the CIA Directorate. One would hope that a moment like this would cause us to pause and reflect, but oftentimes these things are so deeply entrenched that they will be nearly impossible to root out. It is only fair for me to point out that I am a product of the Defense Intelligence system, so it may bias my assessment toward the other agencies mentioned.
There is going to be a plethora of fascinating information coming out of this Jingwei case. I hope there is a substantial amount of security around him and his daughter who accompanied him, because there are many people in China, the US, and possibly other Western nations who will be compromised by this man’s testimony. Any one of the assertions he is making concerning things such as Hunter Biden’s laptop, many wealthy US businessmen and public officials, details of off-the-books meetings between US and Chinese government officials, and the compromise of the CIA communications system put a great number of people and institutions at grave risk, making his safety precarious at best.
My encouragement for you as individuals is to resist knee-jerk reactions to things that may be reported concerning US-China relations over the next several months. The Chinese will do all they can initially to dismantle Jingwei’s testimony. They will attempt to incriminate him and paint him as a criminal monster. They will go after his daughter and any family he might still have in China. I am certain he has prepared for that. What he probably has not prepared for is the onslaught of misinformed US public opinion. The Chinese have become experts at turning the public against the government.
Do not simply believe everything you read. Including More than Meets the Eye. I stand ready to be corrected.
Meet The New Boss: Iran’s Raisi In His Own Words And Those Of Others… https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iran/2021/iran-210619-rferl02.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3097%2ejv0ao0az9m%2e2v8n
IRAN’S NEXT PRESIDENT…https://mailchi.mp/thesoufancenter/irans-next-president?e=47e9e33bef
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org