“I sometimes say that in my last life maybe I was Chinese.”—Sen. Dianne Feinstein
As media, intelligence agency, and political scrutiny of foreign meddling is seemingly at its apex, a story with big national security implications involving a high-ranking senator with access to America’s most sensitive intelligence information has been hiding in plain sight.
The story involves China and the senior U.S. senator from California, and former chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Democrat Dianne Feinstein. It was buried eight paragraphs into a recent Politico exposé on foreign efforts to infiltrate Silicon Valley, as a passing example of political espionage:
Former intelligence officials…[said] Chinese intelligence once recruited a staff member at a California office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and the source reported back to China about local politics. (A spokesperson for Feinstein said the office doesn’t comment on personnel matters or investigations, but noted that no Feinstein staffer in California has ever had a security clearance.)
Later comes additional detail:
According to four former intelligence officials, in the 2000s, a staffer in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco field office was reporting back to the MSS [China’s Ministry of State Security, its intelligence and security apparatus]. While this person, who was a liaison to the local Chinese community, was fired, charges were never filed against him. (One former official reasoned this was because the staffer was providing political intelligence and not classified information—making prosecution far more difficult.) The suspected informant was ‘run’ by officials based at China’s San Francisco Consulate, said another former intelligence official. The spy’s handler ‘probably got an award back in China’ for his work, noted this former official, dryly.
This anecdote provides significantly more questions than answers. For starters: Who was the spy? For how long was the spy under surveillance? What information about “local politics” was the spy passing back to China? Just how close was the spy to the senator? Did law enforcement officials sweep vehicles and other areas for listening devices? Was there an investigation into whether others in the senator’s circle may have been coordinating with Beijing?
Did the senator expose herself to potential blackmail, or the public to danger through leakage of sensitive, highly classified information? Is firing really the proper punishment for providing political intelligence to a foreign power?
The Details Right Now Are Few and Blurry
We now know only the most basic of additional details about what occurred in Feinstein’s office. Five years ago, the FBI approached the senator to apprise her that a San Francisco-based staffer was being investigated under suspicion of spying for China. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein’s hometown paper, this staffer, who had worked with Feinstein for almost 20 years, drove her around in San Francisco and “served as gofer in her San Francisco office and as a liaison to the Asian American community, even attending Chinese Consulate functions for the senator.”
An unnamed source added that a Chinese MSS official first approached the staffer during a visit to Asia several years prior. Given his proximity to Feinstein, we have no idea what information he could have gleaned in her employ. We do have a presumed identity. The Daily Caller discovered that a Feinstein staffer named Russell Lowe, listed on the senator’s payroll as an “office director” as of 2013 before he was let go, matches the description of the Chinese asset.
It appears Lowe continues to operate freely in the United States. A year after he was removed from Feinstein’s staff, Lowe spoke at a conference on Chinese investment in California. In October 2017 he visited a South Korean publication’s office with former Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), indicating he still had access to political figures.
Lowe presently serves as secretary general of the Education for Social Justice Foundation, which seeks to “educate the public on unresolved historical conflicts, human rights, and crimes against humanity.” The Chinese government likely views its present focus favorably: Japanese abuses during the World War II era via its “comfort women” system whereby 200,000 girls from 13 or more Asian countries were forced into sexual slavery. Lowe discusses the nonprofit’s work here.
It took a tweet from President Trump implying hypocrisy, given Feinstein’s role investigating “Russian collusion” as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, while a Chinese spy had infiltrated her own office, to force the senator to address the issue.
Feinstein’s account conflicts with what has been reported regarding the recruitment and activities of the Chinese spy. She conveniently omits that her office employed this individual for almost 20 years in a close capacity, while he represented the senator in interactions with Chinese officials.
A Short History of Dianne Feinstein’s Love for China
For the last 40 years, no politician in America has arguably maintained a deeper, more longstanding and friendlier relationship with China, at the highest levels of its ruling Communist Party, than Feinstein. It dates back to the opening of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations in 1979.
Shortly thereafter, Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, established a “sister city” relationship with Shanghai, one of the earliest and most robust such relationships in U.S.-China history. Soon after, Feinstein led a mayoral delegation to China joined by her husband, investor Richard Blum, a trip they took together many times over the ensuing years as the relationship between both Feinsteins and China grew.
During the 1980s, as mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein developed a close friendship with Shanghai Mayor Jiang Zemin. This substantially enhanced Feinstein’s foreign policy profile, and created an important linkage to the U.S. government for China’s Communist Party (CCP).
Just as Feinstein rose to a prominent position in foreign affairs and national security in the U.S. Senate, first on the Foreign Relations Committee and later as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Jiang rose to the top of Chinese leadership, serving as chairman of the Central Military Commission, general secretary of the CCP, and president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under Jiang’s leadership, the PRC initiated a brutal crackdown against practitioners of Falun Gong, including mass imprisonments, beatings, torture, rape, organ harvesting, and murder, and engaging in alleged human rights atrocities against Tibetans. Feinstein never renounced her friendship with Jiang, in spite of these acts.
Feinstein and Jiang reportedly visited each other regularly in the 1980s, with Jiang once spending Thanksgiving in San Francisco with Feinstein and her husband. Jiang supposedly danced with Feinstein during one such visit, which surely must have been a propaganda coup for the CCP a la Ted Kennedy and the Soviets.
It Turned Out to Be a Lucrative Relationship
In 1986, Feinstein and Jiang designated several corporate entities for fostering commercial relations, one named Shanghai Pacific Partners. Feinstein’s husband served as a director. His financial position was relatively small, less than $500,000 on one project, the only such position in China the Feinstein family held when Feinstein entered the Senate in 1992.
That project, however, which Blum’s firm participated in alongside PRC state-run Shanghai Investment Trust Corp., was one of the first joint ventures between San Francisco and Chinese investors, reportedly “cited by Chinese officials as a testament to the friendly business ties between Shanghai and San Francisco that Feinstein had initiated.” Subsequently Blum’s investments in the Middle Kingdom mushroomed.
In May 1993, Feinstein expressed her strong support on the Senate floor for continued trading with China. Contemporaneously, her husband was seeking to raise up to $150 million from investors, including himself, for a variety of Chinese enterprises.
In August 1993, Feinstein and her husband visited Beijing for extensive meetings with Chinese leaders at President Jiang’s invitation. As the Los Angeles Timesreported in a 1994 exposé on Feinstein’s husband’s business ties and the potential conflict of interests they presented: “Such encounters are fondly remembered when deals are clinched back in China, according to American experts in Chinese business practices. They said that Feinstein’s consistent support for China’s interests cannot help but benefit her husband’s efforts to earn profits there.”
The historical record suggests these American experts were right. Blum successfully raised $160 million for the aforementioned Asia fund under his Newbridge Capital investment company, including investing $1-2 million himself. The fund invested in several state-owned and Chinese government-linked businesses.
Why, We Love Trading with China
Blum’s firm’s largest holding—at the time his China investments began to draw scrutiny in 1997—was its stake in Northwest Airlines. The then-estimated $300 million position was poised to significantly appreciate in value, as Northwest happened to be the sole airline operator providing nonstop service from the United States to any city in China.
When questioned on his China investments, Blum pledged to donate future profits from the holdings to his nonprofit foundation to help Tibetan refugees, thereby “remov[ing] any perception that I, in any way, shape or form benefit from or influence my wife’s position on China as a U.S. senator.” But these conflict of interest issues persisted.
In January 1995, Feinstein was appointed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Subsequently, she made several visits to China, accompanied by her husband, where she met with senior government officials.
During these trips it the couple was wined and dined. On one such visit in January 1996, Feinstein and Blum enjoyed a meal with President Jiang in Zhongnanhai, the exclusive leadership compound for China’s Communist Party, where according to Feinstein they ate in Mao Zedong’s residence in the room where he died.
Feinstein kept up her dogged support for increased trade with China. In May 1996, she penned an editorial in the Los Angeles Times calling for the United States to grant most-favored-nation trading status to China “on a permanent basis and get past the annual dance that is proving to be extraordinarily divisive and not at all helpful toward reaching the oft-stated goal: improvement in human rights.”
Campaign Contributions from Foreign Sources
While Feinstein maintained her pro-China positions, in March 1997, the senator revealed that the FBI had warned her the Chinese government might seek to funnel illegal contributions to her campaign fund. She was one of only six members of Congress to receive such a warning. As the New York Times noted at the time, Feinstein had returned $12,000 in 1994 contributions from people with connections to Lippo Bank, an arm of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate owned by the Riady family, with investments and operations throughout Asia. It employed a senior American executive named John Huang.
The Riadys had been friends and supporters of the Clintons since Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Clinton named Huang, a top fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), his deputy assistant secretary of commerce.
At the time Feinstein disclosed returning the Lippo-tied contributions, Huang was under Justice Department investigation for making potentially illegal contributions to the Democratic Party from foreign sources. He later pled guiltyto violating campaign finance laws as part of the investigation into Chinese attempts to influence U.S. policy through illegal campaign contributions stemming from the 1996 election.
It was later revealed that Huang may have had a direct financial relationship with the Chinese government. The DNC returned more than half of the $3 million he had collected for the party. In 1998, an unclassified report from the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs stated that the Riadys—Huang’s former employer, the leader of which had also pled guilty to campaign finance violations—“had a long-term relationship with a Chinese intelligence agency.”
What is the connection to Feinstein? In June 1996, the senator held a fundraiser at her home attended by President Clinton, Huang, and Xiaoming Dia, chairman of a Hong Kong-based investment company in which Lippo Group had owned a controlling stake until 1994.