DHS eyes Chinese airline employees suspected of spying

Crew members of a Chinese state commercial airline are suspected of spying at U.S. airports, according to a Department of Homeland Security intelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo News.

DHS employees observed the potential intelligence gathering while U.S. officials were conducting inspections of Chinese science researchers leaving the country.

The inspections were part of Operation Subtle Fox, a Homeland Security program that targets “high-risk individuals” suspected of immigration and customs violations and who may work as “nontraditional collectors” for Beijing, according to the bulletin.

Nontraditional collectors are individuals who are not employed by a country’s intelligence services but who gather information on behalf of a government or spy agency. U.S. officials have focused on Chinese students, academics and businessmen as potential nontraditional collectors.

An Air China plane, with baggage trolleys in front of it, at Los Angeles International Airport.
An Air China plane at Los Angeles International Airport in 2010. (Daniel J. Macy/Shutterstock)

During inspections at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), DHS personnel “observed instances of possible assistance with foreign intelligence collection being conducted by Air China airline employees,” says the intelligence report, dated Nov. 29.

The report comes amid heightened concerns about China’s collection efforts in the United States. In 2018 the Justice Department launched its China Initiative, a stepped-up program to investigative and prosecute Chinese theft of trade secrets, economic espionage and other intelligence-related violations on U.S. soil. Some have criticized the initiative as inconsistent, inefficient and opaque.

The intelligence report describes a series of incidents at LAX that aroused suspicions with DHS personnel, including what appeared to be Air China employees using their phones to surreptitiously record interviews by Customs and Border Protection officials of Chinese citizens who had performed scientific research at U.S. universities and were now leaving the country. “Air China uniformed crew members were found observing and/or potentially recording with electronic devices the CBP operational procedures and questioning during inspections,” the report states.

“It is the policy of CBP not to publicly discuss nor confirm law enforcement sensitive information,” a spokesperson for the agency told Yahoo News.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said: “It is extremely immoral and unfair for the U.S. to slander Chinese companies for spying on trumped-up charges. China always requires Chinese enterprises to strictly abide by local laws and regulations when doing business in foreign countries."

The Department of Homeland Security and Air China did not immediately return requests for comment.

An Air China plane landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
An Air China plane landing at Los Angeles International Airport in 2019. (Michael Rosebrock/Shutterstock)

U.S. officials believe the behavior of the Air China employees “could indicate state-derived tasking for the aircrew to collect information on CBP operational procedures,” according to the bulletin, meaning that the Air China crew may have been asked to spy on U.S. customs authorities who were themselves trying to identify potential Chinese intelligence-gathering efforts.

U.S. intelligence officials have long held that Beijing’s state-owned airlines are used for intelligence purposes domestically, and in fact often function as de facto Chinese government outposts.

Air China has been involved in Beijing’s global rendition program, known as Fox Hunt or Skynet, which has involved the kidnapping of U.S.-based individuals, according to a U.S. intelligence contractor. These are “the situations where [Chinese security officials] say, ‘Come with us peacefully or we’re going to cut your family up into small pieces.’”

“They tend to use Chinese carriers” because the crews are cooperative, said the intelligence contractor, who was also familiar with Operation Subtle Fox.

Last year, Air China allegedly provided Chinese consular officials in Houston with false paperwork while they guided travelers to their gate for a charter flight back to China. In July 2020, the Trump administration ordered China to shutter its Houston Consulate, citing intellectual property theft and other spying.

Also in 2020, Los Angeles-based employees of Xiamen Airlines, another Chinese state-controlled carrier, instructed a U.S.-based Chinese researcher to wipe her electronic devices in advance of a CBP inspection, according to court documents cited by the Wall Street Journal. The researcher had previously been brought to the Chinese Embassy and told by officials there to clean her devices in advance of leaving the United States.

And in 2019, Ying Lin, a longtime former Air China employee based at New York City-area airports, pleaded guilty to working as an agent of the Chinese government while at the airline. Lin acted as a courier for Chinese military officials stationed at China’s Mission to the United Nations, repeatedly transporting packages for People's Liberation Army officers — who were not themselves traveling — aboard Air China flights, and sometimes listing them under the names of ticketed passengers, according to court documents.

In return, Chinese officials granted Lin access to special tax-free goods and free construction work on her properties, according to prosecutors.

Cover thumbnail photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images