Frank Montoya Jr. is a retired FBI agent and former director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In his role as a spy hunter, Montoya oversaw national counterintelligence and security policy.
He spoke with KUER's Bob Nelson about espionage, counterintelligence and the FBI's recent arrest of a Syracuse, Utah, man who is suspected of attempting to spy for the Chinese. He said that spying by foreign countries doesn't just take place in Washington, D.C. or in New York.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
KUER: What do you know about this case?
Montoya: It's not an unusual kind of case in the sense that it hasn't happened before ... [I'm] very familiar with a number of cases that are just like this one. This particular case, I think where my base of knowledge is, goes back to conversations in the past several years that counterintelligence professionals have had within the United States intelligence community about the threat, or the the evolving threat, from Chinese intelligence agencies activities where they're targeting individuals that are not necessarily Chinese — and that they're using perhaps social media as a way to do that as well as direct contact.
KUER: So it's a recruitment.
Montoya: I think so. I think that you know these things don't just happen. Individuals on our side — in other words Americans, U.S. persons — they either are approached and agree to work for the foreign intelligence service, or they reach out and offer their services. This is not accidental. This individual to be charged the way he has ... indicates that he took proactive steps to assist the Chinese in their intelligence collection activities in the United States.
KUER: It's really interesting this is happening now with all of the trade issues we've had with China.
Montoya: Absolutely. You know this is something that has been going on for years, but I think that what happens is when a case like this breaks and charges are brought that it brings into sharp relief the activity that is ongoing. And it's everything from what this individual is charged with, which is attempting to convey or conveying national defense information to the theft of sensitive technologies and intellectual properties, to you know, cyber-related activities as well.
KUER: What's the likely approach of the FBI in their investigation to to lead to an arrest like this and a prosecution that they think is solid enough?
Montoya: It's multifaceted. But you know you can even look at contemporary issues — the Russia investigation, for instance, — as an example of how these cases begin. They're not politically driven. They're not the figment of an investigator's imagination. There are allegations that are made or there are sources that come forward and say, "Hey, you need to pay attention to this," or perhaps ... in a case where this individual was actively looking for ways to get access to classified information and he was talking to people who were in government — whether they were in the military or in the FBI — who recognize what his intent was and report that to their superiors or to others and then an investigation was begun.
In the course of that investigation you're going to see a lot of techniques, whether it's human sources or technical sources including FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] or national security letters. You're going to interview a lot of people. You're going to basically build a record of activities — or attempt to build a record of activities — that demonstrates this person's intent to break the law in this case by assisting Chinese intelligence services in the acquisition of classified and sensitive information that is important to the national security of the United States.
KUER: What is unique about this case or how does it tie to Utah specifically? I mean it seems like there's a thread there.
Montoya: Well, the obvious thread is that the individual is a resident of Syracuse, Utah. There is quite a bit of intelligence-related presence here in the state, whether it's down in Draper or at Camp Williams. There's going to be the geographical tie, but there's also the the individual's personal ties here as well. Does he have family? Was this the place that he decided to settle after retirement?
In that latter instance, that's my my case. After a 30-year career in government I have family here and so I decided that Utah always has been a great place to live and I wanted to come here.
KUER: ...I'm just trying to see how a former Defense Intelligence (Agency) officer gets to this point. He obviously speaks fluent Mandarin and ... there is also apparently a link, from what I understand, there's kind of a precedent a couple of LDS cases — return missionaries.
Montoya: Yes. That's a challenge. You know and especially when it comes to the Chinese. The language is a very difficult language to master and yet former LDS missionaries are some of the best speakers — non-Chinese speakers of the language in government.
It's another part of the tragedy of this is that Mormons and I consider myself a faithful member of the faith, but we have always had or enjoyed a great reputation for honesty and integrity and trustworthiness in government. And these kinds of activities or actions or alleged behaviors, they don't bode well for that reputation and it's a hard-earned, hard-won and very respected reputation within the intelligence community.
KUER: I mean this is the kind of stuff of Hollywood screenplays, only this Mr. (Hansen) is in a lot of trouble.
Montoya: There's no question about that. Another thing I wanted to touch on when you talk about motivation there's been a lot of studies done within the intelligence community about what drives an individual to do this and ultimately it boils down to just a few things. Whether it's the acronym MICE or other acronyms that are out there to try to describe the motivations, but it's usually about Money or Ideology or Compromise — meaning there has been some sort of blackmail or extortion involved. Or behaviors like where the individual who typically would not break the law or do something of this magnitude or nature decides that they have to cross the line — it's not to justify the behavior but it is very interesting after the fact to delve into the psychology, the reasons why they do these kinds of things. [KUER: Ego is the other part of the acronym.]
We do that partly to try to prevent the next one. But at the same time, a lot of this boils down to reading a person's mind until they actually commit the act. And that's what makes working these kinds of cases ... really difficult because we don't know how to read people's minds. We're often relegated to reacting to the act. It bears out the old adage in the community that you know counterintelligence success is an intelligence failure. And this is going to be one of those instances where that's absolutely the case.