When an undercover FBI agent showed up at Candace Marie Claiborne's front door one dark and cold night in late 2011, the US State Department employee thought to herself, Who's this strange Chinese man standing outside? But according to a complaint unsealed on Wednesday in federal court, it wasn't hard for the visitor to earn an invitation inside. All the undercover had to do was namedrop the two Chinese spies Claiborne had allegedly been accepting cash and outlandish gifts from, and she brought him inside for tea.
During the subsequent roughly one and a half hour chat, Claiborne discussed her day-to-day frustrations with her government job, and the FBI agent thanked her for being such a good friend to Chinese foreign intelligence. Unsurprisingly, she did not report the visit to her bosses in DC. After all, that would mean drawing attention to the fact that she'd been trading top secret reports for cash and lavish gifts—intended for herself and a friend—including fashion-school tuition, a sewing machine, an iPhone, and a trip to Thailand since at least 2010, the feds say.
Claiborne's motivations weren't complicated, if you buy the government's line: As the complaint puts it, her "constant financial difficulties" made her vulnerable to foreign agents. There may also have been a romantic component: Claiborne seemed determined to help an unnamed man saddled with student debt pay for fashion school in Shanghai, according to the feds.
Still, even though she was apparently willing to fork over info on US-Sino relations to spies, Claiborne seems to have expressed some misgivings about the whole arrangement.
"I don't want to be indebted to anyone but God," she wrote in an August 2013 note. "This has been too much for me from the beginning and I want to be free of this."
It all kind of went downhill from there, according to the 60-page complaint, which is full of email correspondences that make Claiborne and her alleged spy friends seem like characters in the Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading. The short version is that Claiborne got charged with obstructing an official proceeding and making false statements to the FBI, which are felony counts that could land her in prison for up to 25 years. She was arrested on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty.
Perhaps more interesting than the correspondence itself is the fact that the complaint also makes frequent reference about how susceptible Claiborne was by virtue of her low pay. According to Glassdoor, the base salary for someone with her original job description is now about $52,000––which is close to the median household income in the United States. If you're going to give someone top secret clearance, a devil's advocate might argue, you should probably pay this person enough that she's not tempted to trade US intelligence for things like a pair of slippers.
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