FBI Dismantles China’s Elite Intelligence Unit

The FBI has dismantled China’s elite intelligence unit, the Ministry of State Security , by arresting its deputy chief and two other operatives for allegedly trying to steal U.S. trade secrets, according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine. The MSS was responsible for monitoring dissidents inside China, but it also had an important role in gathering information on foreign targets including American corporations that were potential espionage or cyber-espionage targets.

The three MSS officers were identified as Zha Rong, the deputy chief of the MSS’s Jiangsu Province branch, and Chen Qingchang and Ma Chunliu. They are alleged to have stolen information about technology owned by tMicron Technology Inc., a semiconductor company based in Boise, Idaho. The three are accused of trying to pilfer information about advanced semiconductor chips used in military systems that were being developed by Micron.

The arrests are believed to have been made several weeks ago, but it is not clear who tipped off the FBI about the MSS operatives. The espionage case would be extremely significant if true because it would represent one of the first times the U.S. government had successfully uncovered a foreign intelligence-gathering operation by Chinese state security over the last decade. Many previous cases were summarily dropped either because they could not be proved in court or Beijing refused to cooperate with investigators.

Since 2007, more than three dozen American citizens have been convicted of espionage for China, mostly for passing along classified information to Chinese intelligence officers. But the cases were all built on evidence collected by U.S. counterintelligence agents and federal prosecutors rather than from within China’s own security apparatus.

The disclosure of the arrests in Beijing would represent a major embarrassment for China’s Ministry of State Security, which is the primary agency charged with the country’s domestic security and counterespionage. The arrests would also represent a setback for China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology.

These are not the only Chinese arrested in recent months for spying on American corporations or individuals, according to Law Enforcement Examiner . One of them is Yanjun Xu , an operative under the Ministry of State Security, who was arrested in Belgium while traveling on a false passport. He had been extradited to Ohio on March 30th and is now facing espionage charges.

The Ministry of State Security is China’s principal intelligence agency and security organ, responsible for counter-intelligence, foreign intelligence and political security. It is headquartered in Beijing.