“There is an old Chinese proverb—‘Life is like a game of chess, changing with each move. And to win the game you must often sacrifice your pawns.’”
It sounds like the beginning of a clichéd kung fu flick. Instead, it’s the opening lines of an almost 30-minute movie, released yesterday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on YouTube, aimed at educating young Americans studying abroad about the dangers of being recruited by foreign spy agencies.
“We’d like American students traveling overseas to view this video before leaving the U.S. so they’re able to recognize when they’re being targeted and/or recruited,” says a statement on the FBI’s website.
While the movie at first is a little hard to take seriously, opening with hokey Chinese music and a wise sage-sounding voiceover, it’s based on a true story. Game of Pawns: The Glenn Duffie Shriver Story (watch it here) is the real account of a seemingly All-American young Midwesterner who stumbled into becoming a wannabe spy, then went to jail for it. Shriver, who was born in Virginia but grew up in Michigan and studied international relations there, was recruited by Chinese agents while studying Mandarin and living it up in China, after college in 2004.
“Shanghai was amazing. It fit me like a glove. I loved everything about it—the language, the culture, the nightlife, the people,” the actor playing Shriver enthusiastically says, with the movie showing him drinking, dancing, and whooping it up under the strobe lights in a Shanghai nightclub.
The path toward recruitment as shown in the movie, and in real life for Shriver, begins with a seemingly innocent short-term job writing a paper on U.S.-China relations, at the behest of a local woman who calls herself “Amanda.”
Later he starts accepting money as a “stipend” toward his studies from two men he meets through her. With their encouragement, he applies for a job at the Central Intelligence Agency (after failing the State Department test twice), with the intention of later providing information to the people he now recognizes as Chinese agents.
Shriver was arrested shortly after his CIA interview (U.S. agents had been watching him for some time), and he pleaded guilty in 2010 to “conspiring to provide national defense information to intelligence officers of the People’s Republic of China.” He is now serving a four-year sentence. He only received $70,000 in total from the Chinese agents over the five or so years he was in contact with them.
Along with the movie, the FBI has prepared a special Web page called Advice for U.S. College Students Abroad: Be Aware of Foreign Intelligence Threat, aimed at the 280,000 American students who study overseas annually.
“These experiences provide students with tremendous cultural opportunities and can equip them with specialized language, technical, and leadership skills that make them very marketable to U.S. private industry and government employers,” the FBI says on its website. “But this same marketability makes these students tempting and vulnerable targets.”
At times the suggestions seem blatantly obvious: “Foreign intelligence officers don’t normally say they work for intelligence services when developing relationships with students—they claim other lines of work,” the FBI perhaps too helpfully explains. In other words, spies don’t usually admit to being spies—surprise, surprise! And another bit of advice to be filed in the self-evident category: “Be skeptical of ‘money-for-nothing’ offers and other opportunities that seem too good to be true,” the FBI warns.
But to be fair, the threat is real and has been growing. At the time of Shriver’s sentencing in May 2011, he was one of “at least 57 defendants in federal prosecutions since 2008 charging espionage conspiracies with China or efforts to pass classified information, sensitive technology or trade secrets,” the Associated Press reported.
“The Chinese espionage threat has been relentless recently … we’ve never seen anything like it. Some of it’s public. Some of it’s private. And some of it lies in that ambiguous area in between,” said Joel Brenner, who was the U.S. National Counterintelligence Executive from 2006 to 2009, in the 2011 AP report.
“Espionage is a very big deal, very big deal. You’re dealing with people’s lives, and that’s why it’s such a big deal,” says the real Shriver in an interview from his prison cell, at the movie’s end. “Recruitment’s going on. Don’t fool yourself. The recruitment is active, and the target is young people. Throw lots of money at them, see what happens.”