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Eric Swalwell and the spy: A lesson in how China is undermining us

Eric Swalwell and the spy: A lesson in how China is undermining us
© Greg Nash

Congressman Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell compares Trump to bin Laden: They 'inspired and radicalized' Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump MORE (D-Calif.) represents the state’s 15th Congressional District, which sits like a splattered trapezoid between Berkeley and Silicon Valley. The Blue Man Group is less blue than Rep. Swalwell’s district. He has served eight years and was just re-elected with more than 70 percent of the vote. He’s as safe in office as a 450-foot home run.  

The only reason we even know Rep. Swalwell’s name is because he thought, as a three-term, 30-something representative, he could pole-vault directly into the White House and so ran for president in 2019. No one in history has made that leap, but give him credit for youthful — if naive — exuberance.  

In the end, his presidential campaign didn’t just fail to launch, it didn’t make it out of the hangar, lasting a fizzling three months. But the campaign was not without some political value that Rep. Swalwell leveraged to become one of the most quoted and aggressive Trump-Russia collusion and impeachment howlers on the left. The attention was intoxicating for a newer congressman in a large state whom no one normally would know or care about.

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He also had a good perch in the U.S. Congress, having landed, in just his second term, a plum seat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is regularly briefed on the intelligence community’s most highly classified operations.

Swalwell’s prior experience in the world of foreign intelligence operations was limited to his role as a small-town councilman. Why then, you might logically wonder, was he assigned to the prestigious and sensitive intelligence committee? It wasn’t for his keen understanding of Russian tradecraft, that much we know. Think more along the lines of the business and philosophical interests of the China-groveling high-tech companies and socialist academic communities whose districts he straddles.

Ambitious, inexperienced, attention-seeking politicians are like marks for mafia loan sharks. At some point a payment has to be made and the interest on the loan is ugly. Eric Swalwell had an ugly payment week. His carelessness with a Chinese intelligence operative looks far more substantive than the Russia collusion unicorn he so publicly insisted was real. Now he has to pay nasty interest on his glaringly public hypocrisy. If you’re going to draw attention to yourself, check what’s in your own leaky backpack first. 

Rep. Swalwell has become a fascinating case study. Set aside the hypocritical folly of a mostly inexperienced congressman — even though it’s wicked good clickbait — because there’s far more at play here to which we as a free nation need to pay attention.  

Many on the political right would like a deeper investigation of Rep. Swalwell, and maybe even criminal charges. Even in the unlikely event such could be done, it would be a pyrrhic gesture that would detract from a very real and much larger threat. Swalwell was and still is a legitimate target of Chinese intelligence. But he is most probably not a spy. And he is not the only U.S. politician being targeted by the Chinese government, not by a long shot.  

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FBI officials in 2015 chose to give Rep. Swalwell a “defensive briefing,” meaning that they let him know the specific indicators they had that a suspected Chinese intelligence operative was actively targeting his office. For perspective, the FBI gives many such briefings every year to elected and career officials across the government, since the bureau is charged with monitoring China’s operations in this country. The FBI’s decision to brief Swalwell was the proper course of action.

And yes — as has been endlessly pointed out — the FBI, in a startling double-standard, did not provide then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE with the same courtesy in 2016, even though it possessed even thinner indications of cooperation with a hostile intelligence operation.  

The difference is this: The Swalwell defensive briefing was carried out by an FBI field office counterintelligence squad steeped in the tradecraft of Chinese intelligence tactics. Experienced agents know when an aggressive investigation of a U.S. citizen is actually justified or when a prudent briefing will suffice. In contrast, the Trump campaign investigation was led by a band of senior executives at FBI headquarters with wispy counterintelligence experience at best and pocketfuls of political animus.

Rep. Swalwell’s current political misfortune is, however, an instructive glimpse for the American people into the intentions and methods of a nation that is aggressively working to replace the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power. The operation targeting Swalwell may not look all that sophisticated but, when replicated hundreds, if not thousands, of times across the country at multiple levels, certain effects favorable to the Chinese government’s goal of global primacy are inevitable.  

Eric Swalwell has emerged as a useful icon of a major piece of the mosaic that makes up the complex intelligence-gathering strategy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Rep. Swalwell is just a snapshot, but now, a very public one. The PRC is actively targeting many of our politicians to ensure friendly representation of China’s aggressive interests during our democratic deliberations.  

Chinese intelligence operations are raising and bundling money for ever more expensive campaigns, placing cooperators in key offices, and directing lucrative business to family members of elected officials. They are insisting that our Big Tech companies compromise American values in exchange for access to their seductive, profitable market. They are stealing our intellectual property and then using it to compete against us. They are exploiting our generosity by sending tens of thousands of students and academics to our universities with express orders to feed intelligence to the Chinese Communist Party. They are intently watching our reaction to a coronavirus that originated in their country, and carefully assessing its impacts on our fiscal health, traditional freedoms and national unity.

And this is just a small slice of their activities. The U.S. intelligence community doesn’t get everything right but it is essentially unified in its assessment of China as our gravest national security threat. We shrug that off at our own peril. 

China is playing a patient long game. We’re watching Netflix.  

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.