True Spies Episode 108: Network Request
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
NARRATOR: This is True Spies.
J.T. MENDOZA: He offered, he said: “Hey, I can bring the phone in if you want to look at it.” They were using some software that would delete the messages after a period of time. And so he actually offered to bring the phone in, believing that the messages were deleted already.
NARRATOR: Episode 108: Network Request. Surrendering your secrets to a foreign power is risky business. And, depending on the foreign power, it’s generally ill-advised. But there are certain circumstances in which becoming a foreign asset has its appeal. And according to many intelligence officials, there are four primary motivations for an individual to betray their country.
J.T. MENDOZA: Money, ideology, coercion, ego.
NARRATOR: M-I-C-E. Mice.
J.T. MENDOZA: It's a cute little acronym that I think was developed in the 70s or 80s as a way to try to categorize some of the motivations or why people commit espionage.
NARRATOR: Sometimes coercion gets swapped out for compromise - just another way of saying, not every individual becomes an asset by choice. But the other three reasons? They’re powerful motivators for someone disposed to turn their back on their country. The spy we’re hunting in this episode went to work for the PRC, the People’s Republic of China, seduced by at least two of those factors.
J.T. MENDOZA: He had the money and the ego. Ideologically, he had an affection or an affiliation for that part of the world. I don't know if his ideology was aligned with the PRC. He certainly wasn't coerced. He wasn’t blackmailed, but definitely the bookends of mice. Right? We had money and ego playing into this situation. And so he was a prime target.
NARRATOR: Money and ego can fuel extraordinary want. But to some people, in some situations, they go hand-in-hand with a feeling of desperate need. The best assets don’t have to debate whether or not to take a job when it’s offered to them. And the best offers are the ones that won’t be refused.
J.T. MENDOZA: When you're trained as a case officer, you're taught to identify those types of vulnerabilities, the indicators of vulnerability. What is this person saying to me sitting across the table that I can exploit? What desire, what need do they have that I can exploit?
NARRATOR: This week: a case study - and a cautionary tale - in the field of counterintelligence. Delivered by an expert at the top of his game.
J.T. MENDOZA: My name is J.T. Mendoza. I've held a variety of positions within the US government and industry. And throughout my career, I've had the privilege of leading and overseeing various investigations, collaborating and working with other partners throughout the intelligence community and even in the international community.
NARRATOR: For over two decades in various roles for the US government, J.T. rooted out insider threats: perpetrators who might bring about harm from the inside. And he also worked to eliminate the factors that inspire people to spill classified information in the first place. J.T. wasn’t the only person investigating this American turncoat: he was part of a sprawling team of intelligence officials working to catch him in their net. But he’s made a career of getting inside the heads of people who betray their companies and their governments, which is why this case came across his desk at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Catching foreign agents before they could wreak serious damage on the US government. That was J.T.’s bread and butter.
J.T. MENDOZA: Every day we were looking at different types of indicators that are occurring within the DIA, whether it's security violations, whether it leads from coworkers or leads from background investigations, and different types of issues that occur every single day.
NARRATOR: Now, you're probably ready to meet the other man at the center of this story. The man who, in 2017, was recruited by the Chinese government. His name was Kevin Patrick Mallory. Why would the PRC want to hire Kevin Patrick Mallory? Well, let’s take a look at his CV
J.T. MENDOZA: Kevin Patrick Mallory started his career in the US Army as an intelligence officer. He had gone to Brigham Young University and then was commissioned as a US Army intelligence officer.
NARRATOR: After two tours in the Army, Mallory began to build some impressive bona fides.
J.T. MENDOZA: He, after that, moved on to the State Department and spent some time with the CIA and this is where he became a clandestine case officer.
NARRATOR: He was gaining valuable work experience - albeit, not in the way you might expect
J.T. MENDOZA: Trained case officers go out and convince individuals to work on behalf of the US. Many times, this means that they're convincing foreigners to commit espionage for the US against their own country. Right? It's quite sad, ultimately, that's what was done to him, but that's who he was. He was trained to be a clandestine case officer.
NARRATOR: And he gathered valuable insight from other respected institutions, too.
J.T. MENDOZA: He ended up at DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and then ultimately, again, as a CIA contractor, where, after he left there, started his espionage for the Chinese.
NARRATOR: Such an eclectic mix of experiences not only gave him insight into various government agencies but also multiple security clearances. Although not all of those career moves were of his own choosing. More on that later. Of course, getting a job isn’t all about what’s on your résumé. It also helps to be, well, basically nice. Respectful. Capable of keeping your personal and professional lives separate. All of which appeared to be the case for Mallory, at least from the outside.
J.T. MENDOZA: He attended church frequently but he did not have any difficulty socializing. There were no indicators whatsoever to anyone within his sphere of influence that he was having any issues, so to speak.
NARRATOR: Mallory had lived all over the world, and he’d met his wife in Taipei. They had six children and spoke Chinese at home, and they lived in the well-to-do residential community in Raspberry Falls, located in northern Virginia. They were devoted churchgoers. By many accounts, Mallory seemed like a good guy. So, how did things begin to unravel? Or - how did the Chinese government unravel him? It started in a surprisingly mundane way.
J.T. MENDOZA: They reached out to him on LinkedIn, which is, as we all know, a professional platform for different industries, for every industry.
NARRATOR: LinkedIn, ‘the social network for business professionals’ boasts almost a billion users. Someone on the site had found Mallory’s LinkedIn profile and reached out to offer him a consulting job. And that’s not as rare as you might think. American and European intelligence officials have reported that thousands of attempted recruitments have happened on the platform - especially by Chinese spy agencies.
J.T. MENDOZA: I've had individuals reach out to me for different types of consulting requirements and offer different amounts of money. We've seen this 'tactic', if you will, used by the Chinese over and over again of offering individuals or asking individuals if they'd be willing to write white papers or do consulting or speak at a conference in China.
NARRATOR: According to J.T., this is a tool not only for spotting potential spies but also for assessing their potential value to the People’s Republic of China.
J.T. MENDOZA: During that assessment process, what you're trying to determine is, is this individual in a position or willing to commit espionage against their country or against their organization, if you're talking about economic espionage. He may have posted something on LinkedIn about looking for work. And he received a LinkedIn message from Michael Yang, who passed himself off as a think tank representative looking for a foreign policy expert.
NARRATOR: How flattering. Someone thinks you’re an expert.
J.T. MENDOZA: But we now know that Michael Yang was actually a Chinese intelligence officer that was simply doing spotting. And then once he identified Mallory, he passed him off to his ‘boss’ at the think tank who actually would be his handling agent, his handling case officer.
NARRATOR: You have to wonder at this point, how much did Mallory understand about the new ‘job opportunity’? Was he already aware that he was being asked to spy for a foreign power?
J.T. MENDOZA: I don't know, to be quite honest, as someone who is pretty active on LinkedIn and I get a number of messages a week from individuals looking for foreign policy experts or intelligence experts. I don't know if he knew. We do know that he knew that he was meeting with Chinese intelligence officers.
NARRATOR: Right. So even if you give the guy the benefit of the doubt - maybe he wasn’t fully aware of the job description - he certainly knew who his employers were. And, most importantly for Mallory, he knew what he’d be making: $25,000.
J.T. MENDOZA: So after he responded to the LinkedIn message, they invited him to China. And records indicate that they struck up a relationship. And, even on his first trip to China, he handed over some pretty sensitive secrets verbally.
NARRATOR: Mallory returned to the United States, his assessment complete, $25,000 richer. Within just a couple of months of receiving the message on LinkedIn, he was working as an agent for the MSS, the Chinese Ministry of State Security. But he wasn’t exactly the smoothest spy because the way he went about finding information set off alarm bells for his former colleagues.
J.T. MENDOZA: He actually reached out to some of his previous coworkers who thought some of his questions were a little beyond someone just looking to catch up. And so he was actually asking some of his coworkers from CIA and DIA operational questions, questions about individuals who Mallory knew were cooperating with the United States - spying against China - but spying for the US.
NARRATOR: That’s when American intelligence officials detected a whiff of something treasonous about Kevin Patrick Mallory. And that’s when J.T. Mendoza entered the scene.
J.T. MENDOZA: At the time I was working at the Defense Intelligence Agency and I had responsibilities really for overseeing any type of collaboration and information sharing with our intelligence community partners as it relates to counterintelligence investigations. And so I was a part of DIA's counterespionage division, and we were already actively working on a number of espionage investigations jointly with the FBI. And so, in March of 2017, the FBI case agent that had opened the investigation asked for a meeting.
NARRATOR: Credit to the Americans. This is all unspooling with remarkable speed. It was February when the Chinese reached out to Mallory. Now it’s March, and US intelligence officials already have their eye on him and they’re looking to J.T. for help.
J.T. MENDOZA: They laid out what they had identified and the issue that was occurring to Mallory, having been a former Defense Intelligence Agency employee. They essentially wanted to share information and they were asking for information that we may have had in our records and what information we had within our records that could assist them.
NARRATOR: To J.T., that seemed like a simple-enough task.
J.T. MENDOZA: I routinely received these types of requests from the intelligence community, different types of agencies who are investigating someone or have identified an issue with someone who maybe is now their employee. And [if] they identify that the individual used to work at DIA, I would get a request and they would say: “Hey, have you ever had any issues with this individual? Or what do you have in your records? This is what we're looking at.”
NARRATOR: J.T. requested a ‘letterhead memorandum’, a document used to share information between agencies that typically contains the subject’s name, the agency case number, and any other need-to-know information. Because J.T. had spent nearly a decade working closely with the FBI, he understood the system the Bureau used to number its cases. Even without many background details, he could see that the FBI had opened an espionage investigation into Mallory - and that it involved China. With that, J.T. went digging for Mallory’s background and stumbled on a few highly relevant details.
J.T. MENDOZA: What we identified was, in fact, that security and our inspector general - which is like our ethics office - had conducted three different types of investigations on Kevin Patrick Mallory.
NARRATOR: This wasn’t the first time Mallory had engaged in shady behavior. Turns out, he’d had a questionable track record all along. And, where there’s smoke, a secret agent is about to come under fire. Kevin Patrick Mallory was a former employee of the DIA and clandestine case officer for the CIA. Given his background in the highest echelons of US intelligence, you’d think he’d know better than to try to outsmart those agencies. Instead, he’d started selling secrets to Chinese spies. And when the FBI and DIA went digging, they found he had a few skeletons in his closet.
J.T. MENDOZA: What we identified within his Army records was that he had financial issues very early on in his career. So, right after college, he just didn't do well at managing money. He didn't do well at budgeting, at living within his means. He always wanted a little more. And so, even as a junior officer within the US Army, he had financial issues.
NARRATOR: And as Mallory progressed in his career, the consequences of those issues were magnified.
J.T. MENDOZA: Clandestine case officers are often given, what I would say, is a little bit of latitude with operational funds. So there are classified funds that they're allowed to use as they attempt to carry out their mission, as they attempt to recruit individuals. He misused operational funds, which is something you just don't do. It's very sensitive. Those are the types of issues that actually we have to report to Congress, whenever there are issues with operational funds, because of the sensitivity of the nature of those funds and how they're managed and scrutinized. He had also had several violations including sharing top-secret information with uncleared individuals. So he had shared top-secret information with an individual that had no clearance whatsoever, which was a grave issue.
NARRATOR: That incident had been risky enough that Mallory was placed on leave and investigated.
J.T. MENDOZA: What the records showed was that during that investigation, he was placed on administrative leave because we didn't want him to have continued access to classified information, and he resigned.
NARRATOR: When someone like Mallory is under investigation for a non-criminal incident and realizes they’re in trouble, it’s not uncommon for them to resign. Then, the agency they’re working for loses jurisdiction over the offense. After that, local law enforcement often neglects to pursue the matter. Mallory’s resignation put an end to the investigation - and, effectively, allowed him to slip through the cracks. Now he was out and about, making his second journey to convene with his new clients.
J.T. MENDOZA: On his second trip after the MSS - or the Ministry of State Security - recruited him, he was issued a covert communications device, a cell phone.
NARRATOR: A cell phone. Nothing fancy - a Samsung Galaxy, to be precise - one of the world’s most ubiquitous brands. That cell phone would play an important role in Mallory’s unraveling.
J.T. MENDOZA: And so, on his return trip, our investigation had already ensued and in April of 2017, when he came back from China, we had coordinated with CBP to conduct a secondary search when he came through at Dulles.
NARRATOR: CBP being Customs and Border Patrol. When Mallory landed at the airport in Washington, a warm welcome was awaiting him.
J.T. MENDOZA: And so they searched his belongings. He lied on his customs form that he was not transporting more than $10,000, but in fact, he actually had $16,500 on his person.
NARRATOR: A fresh paycheck from the Chinese government.
J.T. MENDOZA: He had also lied about the phone, which the Chinese had issued as covert communication, or what we often refer to as a 'CovCom' device. He told CBP that it was a gift for his wife. And so, really, this was just a way for us to identify what type of things he had on him. You know, it was an attempt to also identify if there was any potential classified information on his person at that time. But it was passive in nature. It was a technique used to collect information, to collect evidence during the investigation.
NARRATOR: So investigators know that Mallory has a rather sordid history of workplace indiscretion. He’s had suspicious conversations with former coworkers. Now they’ve caught him in a lie at Dulles Airport, and have eyes on the smoking gun that is the CovCom phone. What else do they have to go on?
J.T. MENDOZA: During the investigation, the FBI had conducted surveillance on him and it was really meant to ascertain if he was meeting with someone in the US, that maybe there was a Chinese intelligence officer or some type of co-opted individual that we needed to identify. But during that surveillance, we were able to obtain security footage from a stop that he made at a FedEx Kinko's where he was observed scanning documents onto an SD card.
NARRATOR: Mallory was captured on surveillance video in an ordinary printing-and-shipping center, showing documents to a cashier. Could he really be making scans of highly classified material right out in the open, with no security precautions in place? J.T. and his team wouldn’t know the truth until later, but it certainly didn’t look like Mallory was working in the national interest. Meanwhile, Mallory was feeling rattled by what had happened in the airport after his second trip to China. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.
J.T. MENDOZA: He did wait a couple of weeks, and then he later decided to walk into the CIA and ask to speak to the security office to report something suspicious in nature.
NARRATOR: To hear Mallory tell it, he’d encountered something dodgy, and he wanted to let the security officer know about it. It was the right thing to do. No matter that he’d actually entered into a business arrangement with the suspicious individuals in question.
J.T. MENDOZA: He lied, obviously, about the relationship and the amount of meetings he had, and the fact that he had provided classified information. He did tell them about the phone that he had been issued, but he only admitted to sending ‘test’ messages, essentially to establish communications with these individuals. When the security officer asked him: “Have you provided any information to these individuals?” He said: “The only thing I've done is send a test text.” Which we found out a few weeks later was a lie.
NARRATOR: An aside for the listener who’s thinking: “Who did this man think he was fooling?” It’s a reasonable question to ask.
J.T. MENDOZA: This is where we really see his inadequate skills technically. I have to be careful because I have a lot of friends in the intelligence community who'll hate me for this, but many individuals that operate successfully as case officers, including myself, often have egos. Right? Mallory, socially, was able to maneuver and live life. Right? He wasn't awkward. No one thought anything was wrong. He's able to handle a certain amount of stress, certainly the types of traits that often make successful case officers. He was definitely playing with fire, but it wasn't something he wasn't used to.
NARRATOR: A case officer’s ego can work in their favor, giving them the confidence to do their risky work. But it’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance - and arrogant people make for great traitors. Mallory walked away from the meeting with the CIA security office without doing himself any additional harm. But he set himself up for further trouble when he offered his phone up for investigation - the Samsung Galaxy given to him by the Chinese.
J.T. MENDOZA: He offered, he said: “Hey, I can bring the phone in if you want to look at it.” And he did this, we found out later, because he believed the Chinese had told him that the messages would delete, that they were using some software that would delete the messages after a period of time. And so, he actually offered to bring the phone in, believing that the messages were deleted already.
NARRATOR: You won’t be surprised to learn that the CIA was happy to oblige. So, two weeks later, Mallory brought the phone to the hotel in northern Virginia where the Agency had requested the meeting.
J.T. MENDOZA: And he probably thought that the CIA was going to give him some type of reward or was going to ask him to continue this relationship, maybe, with the Chinese. But when he walked into the hotel room, he met with two FBI agents who had also brought with them a computer forensic technician.
NARRATOR: Not just the CIA. The CIA, the FBI, and a really good hacker.
J.T. MENDOZA: And actually they were recording the meeting for evidence purposes because by this time we knew what he was doing. We had had him under surveillance for a matter of months. And so he handed it to the computer forensic technician and said: “You probably won't see anything on there because they told me the messages would delete.” But when the technician plugged the device into their laptop, the FBI was able to see weeks' worth of messages between Mallory and his handling agents.
NARRATOR: The evidence came tumbling out. Incriminating messages like...
J.T. MENDOZA: “As your object is to gain information, my object is to be paid for it.”
NARRATOR: Oof. Hard to deny what that’s about.
J.T. MENDOZA: He also lied to the Chinese. He told them that when he had been stopped by CBP at the border because he had lied on the form, CBP had seized that money. And so, he had actually lied to them and said: “I'm expecting to be repaid, essentially. I want another $16,000 for the material I have provided.” And then, for evidentiary purposes, there were two statements that really helped. He said: “The two pages of hand notes are unrelated to the one page above it. This was a separate operation, unrelated to our previous discussions.” And then he also said: “When you get the okay to replace the prior payment that was seized, I will send more docs and, in the future, I will destroy all electronic records after you confirm receipt.” And so, that really assisted us in identifying the fact that not only had he already provided classified information to them but that he had additional documents that we needed to identify.
NARRATOR: Four weeks later, Kevin Patrick Mallory was arrested. At the same time, the FBI conducted a search of his home - which is when they found an SD card, wrapped in tin foil. When the federal agents viewed its contents, they found eight classified documents - the ones Mallory had scanned in the print-and-ship store.
J.T. MENDOZA: Those classified documents, we believe, had been transmitted to the Chinese. Now we were able to find those documents within our records at DIA and were able to use those in the prosecution of Mr. Mallory.
NARRATOR: Those documents, J.T. recalls, were already four or five years old but they still contained classified information - and still put other intelligence officers at risk.
J.T. MENDOZA: The information was so sensitive and so detailed that it was used by the prosecutors in court. And it actually had identifying information for a couple who had agreed to work on behalf of US intelligence and who had scheduled travel to China later that summer.
NARRATOR: If those two intelligence officials had indeed flown to China, one can only imagine the danger they might have encountered on their arrival. Mallory had not only risked state secrets but human lives. In May 2019, Mallory was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. He’ll be well into his 80s by the time he’s released. One wonders if those two payments he received from the Chinese seem worth it to him in hindsight. J.T. spent some time in reflection, too.
J.T. MENDOZA: When a case like this happens, after we within the intelligence community mitigate the immediate threat of his espionage, then we go back and we do a case study. We do what's called a ‘threat assessment’. What did his espionage entail? When can we see initial indicators? And it's really so we can identify lessons learned. Where were the indicators that we missed? What was happening in this individual's life professionally, and personally, that we can learn from so that we can prevent these things from happening again, right?
NARRATOR: In Mallory’s case, J.T. saw a toxic combination of poor financial management and lax adherence to rules and policies. But there was another, more human factor at play.
J.T. MENDOZA: The thing that we don't often talk about was that he was married and he had six kids. He was about five months behind in his mortgage. He also, in addition to being five months behind, had a little over $230,000 in debt. And so, as a father myself, I know what it's like to wake up and have responsibilities for a family. I cannot imagine being in a situation where I can't put food on the table, where I can't pay for the mortgage. I never empathized with him, but I certainly have sympathy for him.
NARRATOR: To be sure, Mallory was not a charity case. He lived in a beautiful house in a posh little enclave of Virginia. But he had a big family to support and, as the FBI and DIA investigation revealed, managing money did not come easily. Sometimes it’s about more than money or ideology or coercion or ego. Sometimes the great motivator is desperation.
J.T. MENDOZA: We, I think, at times forget that these are humans that are just in dire straits. And it is unfortunate, right? I'm not trying to downplay the decisions that they have made to betray their country and to commit treason. But ultimately, he was in dire straits. He was in dire financial straits. And we failed, the intelligence community failed to detect and identify this and get him help.
NARRATOR: Today, that’s precisely the failure that J.T. is working to remedy, as an executive leading an insider risk management program in the private sector.
J.T. MENDOZA: I still do the same thing. I'm still looking for those potential indicators within our workforce and trying to figure out… How do we help? How do we help people? How do we help these individuals that may be having issues?
NARRATOR: Mallory isn’t the only one of his kind. Far from it. Recent years have seen a spate of American intelligence officials turning their back on the US to spy for China. LinkedIn recently shut down its operations in China, a market that once funneled 54 million users onto the site. That decision makes it that much harder for the MSS to reach out to new recruits. But, of course, the internet is vast, and the world is getting smaller and smaller. Where there’s a will to find foreign agents, there will always be a way.
J.T. MENDOZA: I think, oftentimes, this is one of the byproducts of things like globalization and the ability to do business internationally. It's just a resounding fact when you have an adversary like the Chinese who continue to target sensitive US information and individuals with access to that information. Until our security programs evolve more to a point where we're willing to help individuals that are having issues, I think that's really the only thing that will probably assist us in seeing a decrease in these types of cases.
NARRATOR: For J.T., it’s about going back. Before the LinkedIn message ever landed in Mallory’s inbox. Before his abrupt resignation in the midst of an investigation. Before he ever learned a single classified secret he might one day share.
J.T. MENDOZA: What if we could have gotten him some financial help early on in his career? What if, early on, as a junior Army officer, as he experienced financial issues, someone would have said: “Hey, Kevin, you really ought to go over to whatever it is, right? This office can help you in outlining a budget so you can live within your means.” What if someone would have done that? We wouldn't be here today.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby.