True Spies Episode 48: The Spy in the Cornfield
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?
MARK BETTEN: Particularly when I would call up to the Chicago office, explain I need help with surveillance. And they would say: 'Well, what kind of case are you working? Or what's intellectual property?’ I said: ‘Well, it's corn.’
NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 48: The Spy in the Cornfield.
MARK BETTEN: And then I would hear a long silence on the other end of the phone: 'Corn, are you serious?’ And then I would say: 'Well, yeah, but it's really expensive corn.’
NARRATOR: This is Special Agent Mark Betten of the FBI. He’s retired now. In his time he worked counterterrorism cases, caught kidnappers, busted corrupt police officers. But the investigation you’re going to hear about was the longest and most complex he ever led. It involved an international conspiracy to steal corn - yes, corn. Maize, if you prefer. Mark was based in Des Moines, Iowa, where they grow a lot of corn on the vast open space that stretches west of the Mississippi River.
MARK BETTEN: Des Moines, Iowa is right in the center of the United States, which is the farm belt of the United States. The most fertile soil in the entire United States runs through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, parts of Minnesota, Missouri. And believe it or not, there's a tremendous amount of intellectual property that goes into the creation of our 'ag' products, seed products, soybean, corn.
NARRATOR: In 2011, when this story began, some of the biggest seed producers in the world were based out there: Syngenta in Chicago, Monsanto in St. Louis, and, in a suburb of Des Moines, DuPont Pioneer.
MARK BETTEN: They have some of the best corn seed products literally in the world. And the reason it's some of the best in the world is because they spend a tremendous, tremendous amount of money developing those lines of seed. For example, to develop one successful line to seed that they will actually send to market, they typically spend five to eight years of research testing that seed, and they'll spend anywhere from $30m to $40m on that one seed product before they send it to market.
NARRATOR: Millions of dollars. And it’s all within easy reach, growing at the side of the road in fields that stretch to the horizon and beyond. You can see why someone might be tempted to pinch some, can’t you? If they knew what they were looking for. Not very glamorous, you might think, corn. But if you steal it, you’re not simply stealing millions of dollars worth of research. You’re stealing secrets. Trade secrets. And that’s called espionage. In the summer of 2011 Mark Betten was in charge of counterintelligence out in Des Moines.
MARK BETTEN: Counterintelligence is essentially trying to thwart the activities of foreign adversaries and their malign activities here in the United States. It involves protecting our country's national defense secrets - that's probably first and foremost. But it also involves protecting our country's vital intellectual property, intellectual property that our government has determined is vital to either our national security or our economic security as a country here in the United States.
NARRATOR: And as we’ve heard, there’s a lot of intellectual property in the Corn Belt. So one day in June, Mark drove out to the suburb of Johnston, where DuPont Pioneer has its global headquarters. ‘Big Agriculture’ doesn’t get much bigger than this. DuPont Pioneer is one of the biggest producers of genetically modified seed in the world. It was a routine, kind of get-to-know you visit.
MARK BETTEN: Somewhat off the cuff, at the end of the meeting, I asked: ‘Was there anything that's happened that's caused you concern recently as far as any suspicious activity?’ When I asked that question, they said: ‘Well, just last month we had an incident in one of our grower fields.’ And I had no idea what a grower field was at the time.
NARRATOR: A grower field is a field that a company like DuPont Pioneer rents from a local farmer in order to test a particular line of seed. Typically it is remote, well-hidden, away from prying eyes.
MARK BETTEN: So this employee of DuPont Pioneer [pulled] up on this grower field just to check and see that it was planted and everything looked good. He sees these two Asian males in the field, one’s out in the field on his hands and knees. The man on his knees doesn’t look like a farmer. He’s well dressed, and he’s digging up a corn seedling. He goes out to the field, the manager goes out the field, confronts the Asian male [who is] on his hands and knees, asks him: ‘What are you doing out here?’ He said: ‘We're attending an agriculture conference. We're just checking and looking at the crops and how things are growing here in the United States.’ The field manager tells them: ‘Well you shouldn't be in here because the field was just sprayed. You need to go.’
NARRATOR: And at that point, the field manager’s phone rings.
MARK BETTEN: And as he's on the phone call, the Asian male on his hands and knees runs out of the field, gets into the car that's nearby. The driver of the car goes down into the ditch and spins around and goes out the other way at a high rate of speed.
NARRATOR: Suspicious, don’t you think? Well the field manager thought so; and as the car raced past him, he made a note of the license plate. It turned out to have been rented a few days earlier by a man called Mo Hailong, a Chinese national living in Boca Raton in Florida. Mark listened patiently to this story but mentally, he was shrugging his shoulders.
MARK BETTEN: Quite frankly, I didn't quite understand the significance of it but they seemed fairly exercised by the entire incident. So I told them I would go back, do some checks, and if I came up with anything, I’d let them know.
NARRATOR: A couple of weeks later, Mark headed out to see another local producer - Stine Seed, just west of Des Moines - and one of the executives there told him they’d just come back from a trip to Beijing.
MARK BETTEN: So we just asked if there was any chance they would be willing to share some of the business cards with the folks that they met with while they were over there in China. They gave us about 20 business cards of individuals they met with, both government agriculture officials as well as private sector seed executives. And then when I got back to my office, I was just thumbing through the business cards a little bit, looking at them. And there was one business card that caught my attention.
NARRATOR: You’ve guessed already, haven’t you? One of the people they had met in China was a man called Mo Hailong.
MARK BETTEN: And I thought, now that name kind of sounds familiar.
NARRATOR: Mark ran it through his computer and there it was. It was the same name; the man who’d rented the car that had hightailed it out of the cornfield. Could this really be the same ‘Mo Hailong, PhD’, whose card was lying on Mark’s desk? The director of international business for Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group in China?
MARK BETTEN: And I thought to myself: ‘There's no chance that these two are the same individual.’ But I thought: ‘Stranger things have happened. I'm going to see if I can get a photograph of the Mo Hailong that lives down in Florida and take it out and show it to the Stine seed executives and see if it's the same people.’
NARRATOR: So he called his FBI colleagues in Miami and they dug out a photo for him. He took it back to Stine.
MARK BETTEN: They looked at the picture and said: ‘That's him. That's the same guy we met with in Beijing.’ I couldn't believe it. I was flabbergasted. I could not believe that a Chinese seed executive in Beijing was the same individual digging on his hands and knees in a grower field in Tama, Iowa.
NARRATOR: And then a coincidence turned into a pattern. Mark was discussing the case a few weeks later back at headquarters in Des Moines; and a local police officer overheard him.
MARK BETTEN: And he said: ‘You know, this sounds familiar.’ He says: ‘One of our deputies was recently tripped out to a call - or got dispatched out to a call - to some individuals, Asian individuals near Des Moines in a field acting suspiciously. Let me grab that report for you guys and see if there's any connection.’
NARRATOR: Well judge for yourself. This time there were three men. And this time the grower field belonged not to Pioneer but to one of the other major seed companies, Monsanto.
MARK BETTEN: The deputy goes out and confronts these three individuals and IDs them from their passports, asks them what they're doing. They said they're attending an agricultural conference and they're just driving around looking at fields to see how the US did their agriculture. So the deputy told them: ‘You know, you need to go.’ They acted indignant. They said, you know: ‘We're seed scientists and we're researchers and we're welcomed by the farmers in China.’ And the deputy just bluntly told them: ’Well, here in the United States it's called trespassing. So you need to beat it and get out of here.’
NARRATOR: I don’t need to tell you, do I, that one of the names the deputy noted down was Mo Hailong? We’ll come back to the others. It’s now September 2011 and the FBI launches a formal investigation.
MARK BETTEN: To my knowledge, it was the first type of investigation where the FBI was taking on investigation of the theft of an agricultural product such as corn seed.
NARRATOR: And Mark’s previous job, as a polygraph examiner - that’s lie detection to you and me - probably wasn’t going to help much. So a man who only a few weeks earlier had not even known what a grower field was, began to learn about corn. How to grow it, how to reproduce it.
MARK BETTEN: The secret to corn breeding is developing a successful male line of seed and a successful female line of seed. Then you cross-breed those two. In other words, you plant the male and female in the same field and you have the male plant pollinate the female plant. Then you harvest the seed off that female plant. That's called a hybrid seed.
NARRATOR: The hybrid seed is what then gets planted. But if your intention is to recreate a hybrid, what you need are the parents, those male and female seeds. And this, the FBI suspected, is what Mo Hailong and his accomplices had been looking for. Corn in Iowa is planted in April and May and harvested in September and October. Not much happens over the winter. But in February 2012, the FBI in Florida got wind that Mo Hailong was on the move. Mark, in Des Moines, alerted his contact at DuPont Pioneer: ‘He might be headed this way. Best keep an eye out.’
MARK BETTEN: The following day, they called me and they said we have a delegation visiting here at our headquarters in Johnston. They're taking a tour of our facility. And one of the individuals here, we're convinced, is Mo Hailong. And I said: ‘What did he sign in with his name?’ And they said: ‘No, he signed in with an alias, Wu Hougang.’ I said: ‘Well, how sure are you that it's Mo Hailong?’ I said: ‘It just seems improbable that he's going to come back to your headquarters after he was seen in one of your fields and confronted by one of your managers. I would think he would be a little more cautious than that.’
NARRATOR: But Mark sent a surveillance team out to Johnston all the same.
MARK BETTEN: And our surveillance team leader said: ‘Yeah, there's no doubt it's him.’ So, I mean, I could not believe it. So we started following him the entire time he was in Des Moines.
NARRATOR: There was another Chinese national visiting Des Moines that week. In fact there was a whole delegation, led by a man you’ve probably heard of. Xi Jinping. Yes, that Xi Jinping, then vice-president, now president of China. Xi had a relationship with Iowa. He’d spent a few days there in the 1980s. And what better place for Chinese executives to sign a multi-billion dollar deal to import US soybeans, another Iowa staple? Mark Betten wasn’t much interested in that, though. He wanted to know what Mo Hailong was up to.
MARK BETTEN: They hosted a pretty exclusive and lavish state dinner for Xi Jinping that night. We were surveilling Mo Hailong. He drove down to the State capitol where the state dinner was being hosted and attempted to gain entry to the state dinner. But he was denied. He wasn't on the visitor list or the guest list.
NARRATOR: Apparently undeterred, Mo Hailong placed a call to someone already inside the building.
MARK BETTEN: And that person came out, got him, vouched for him, and then he came in and he attended the state dinner for Xi Jinping that evening.
NARRATOR: So now you’re probably asking yourself the same questions that Mark was asking. Who did Mo Hailong call? How close were they to the Chinese government? Did the Chinese government know what Mo Hailong was up to in the Midwest? Was the Chinese government pulling his strings?
MARK BETTEN: So that was a very eye-opening part of the case, very perplexing as there [were] a lot of very high level Chinese officials at that dinner, as you might imagine.
NARRATOR: The possibility that the Chinese government was involved had raised the stakes. If Mo Hailong was being protected, that might make this case even harder to crack. It was in April that Mo Hailong next caught the FBI’s attention. Planting season. By now they had a tracking device on his car, which told them it had been sitting in an airport car park in Florida for three days. A tracking device has its uses, but also its limitations. It tells you where a car is, but not its owner. So Mark got a warrant to track Mo Hailong’s telephone.
MARK BETTEN: The minute I got that warrant, I contacted the cell phone company about pinging his phone. They pinged it - it showed he was out near Chicago, Illinois, in rural parts of Illinois. That is also some of the most fertile farmland in the United States.
NARRATOR: Mark’s FBI colleagues in Chicago picked up the trail. Mo Hailong was heading across the state line out of Illinois, into Iowa.
MARK BETTEN: This was a Saturday morning. I was out at my son's soccer game. I get a call from the lead surveillance agent and said: ‘Hey, Mo Hailong, looks like he's come to Iowa. He's coming your way. Your agents in Iowa are going to need to follow him.’ So I have to scramble around on a, you know, Saturday morning calling agents that are out by the border of Illinois. We have an office out near that way. And I asked: ‘Hey, I've got a subject coming this way. Can you help me follow him?’ And of course, the kind of the running joke was: ‘Well, sure, sure Betten, what have you got, a kidnapping, a homicide subject or something of that nature? We'll be glad to come out on a Saturday morning, our day off. You know. You know, you got a kidnapping. We'll be right out there.’ I said: ‘Well, now it's not quite like that. And it's a guy stealing corn.’
NARRATOR: You can almost see the eyebrow being raised, can’t you? ‘Corn? Sure, right. Yup, I can see why that would be pretty urgent.’ In the end Mark got what he needed.
MARK BETTEN: Surveillance is an art form, I would say.
NARRATOR: A resource-intensive art form, because you need four or five cars and they need constantly to switch positions to make sure that one particular vehicle doesn’t stick out. You don’t want to attract attention.
MARK BETTEN: Des Moines is about five hours from Chicago. And the main interstate across Iowa is Interstate 80. Traffic usually moves along about 70, 75 miles per hour. So as our surveillance team was following him, he would have periods where he would slow down to 50, 55 miles per hour, and he would speed up to 80, 85 miles per hour. He would just at the last minute pull off into a rest stop and sit there for a minute or two just to observe traffic around him. All those activities are indicative of counter surveillance activity.
NARRATOR: Which made Mark nervous. Had his team been spotted? That was going to make life difficult. Or was this just routine behavior on Mo Hailong’s part? If so, that raised the interesting possibility that he had some knowledge or training in how to get rid of a tail. And that implied that he was up to no good.
MARK BETTEN: He went all the way to a little town called Adel, Iowa, just west of Des Moines, about 30 miles. And I was actually on the surveillance team at that point. And as we came into Adel, he was going north on the road and I was back about a quarter of a mile, just so I could barely see his car.
NARRATOR: And then Mo Hailong did something unexpected.
MARK BETTEN: When he got into town, he did a U-turn in the middle of the street. And this is, again, just a rural street with not a lot of cars. So he does a U-turn. He comes back southbound as I'm coming by him northbound. So he goes right by me.
NARRATOR: Mark got onto the radio to alert the other cars.
MARK BETTEN: I said: ‘Hey, he just did a U-turn. He's coming back southbound now.’ He went about another quarter of a mile before he did another U-turn to go back northbound again. He then pulled into a parking lot and sat in a nearby parking lot and sat for about two, three minutes just watching traffic go by. And then he drove and went to a storage unit that was nearby. And he spent a fair amount of time at the storage unit. And at the time I thought, ‘Well, he must not know where he's going. He's trying to find the storage unit and didn’t know where he was going.’
NARRATOR: It was only later that Mark discovered that Mo Hailong had been renting that storage unit for the previous two or three years.
MARK BETTEN: So he clearly knew exactly where he was going. But all those U-turns and that sitting in the parking lot, it was evident at that point that he was clearly engaging in some type of counter surveillance activity to see if he was being followed or to make sure that he wasn't being followed.
NARRATOR: Iowa’s particular geography creates its own difficulty for a surveillance team. It’s not so bad in the summer when the corn can grow up to eight or 10 feet tall and give you a bit of cover. But in April, at planting time, you can see for miles. And access to the remote grower fields that Mo Hailong was sniffing out is, quite literally, way off the beaten track.
MARK BETTEN: Many of the roads are dirt roads or gravel roads. So when you're driving, it throws up a tremendous amount of dirt and dust. And that is another factor that significantly complicates the ability to follow individuals in those kinds of areas.
NARRATOR: What Mark really needed was an eye in the sky. In fact, aircraft surveillance in this case became critical.
MARK BETTEN: Believe it or not, most people don't even know a plane is flying above them. They typically fly fairly high. So you don't really hear it that well. You don't see it, and if you're in a car, you typically don't have any opportunity to see it because it's usually pretty much directly above you.
NARRATOR: So Mark became less reliant on cars, so conspicuous in rural Iowa.
MARK BETTEN: The stakes were pretty high because if he detected surveillance or saw one of us, he would probably not continue engaging in the nefarious activity that he was involved in. And it could completely, you know, destroy the investigation and put an end to it.
NARRATOR: But Mo Hailong seems to have been content that he was not being watched because he carried on, and often he had company. Not long after the incident in Adel, Mark was tipped off that he had picked up two men at the airport who’d flown in from China.
MARK BETTEN: I had a surveillance team in Chicago following them the entire time they were in town and, the day before they were flying back out to Beijing, our surveillance team saw the three of them going to a FedEx location in suburban Chicago, and they were wheeling in five large boxes into the FedEx. So the surveillance team leader called me and asked: ‘They're wheeling five large boxes into the FedEx. What do you want us to do?’
NARRATOR: What are your options at this point? You don’t want these men to know they’re being watched, so you can’t just step in and seize the boxes. But you want to know what’s in the boxes. It could be evidence. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? What would you do?
MARK BETTEN: I said: ‘Well, wait until they leave the store, go in, identify yourself to the store clerk. I’ll see if we can get a search warrant and we can open those boxes and see what’s in there.’ And once we obtained and had that search warrant in place, we opened the boxes and there were 42 bags of corn seed.
NARRATOR: So here’s the next dilemma. Now that you know it’s corn seed, you don’t want it to leave the country. Nor do the seed companies, by the way. This is a carefully designed, very valuable product. But as before, it’s still too early in the investigation to make any arrests. So you’re going to have to be subtle. I wonder if you would have come up with the next idea?
MARK BETTEN: We decided to replicate the seed and coat it the same colors to make it look identical.
NARRATOR: Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But it took the scientists at DuPont Pioneer three days to match the shade of purple they needed. And time was pressing.
MARK BETTEN: When you ship something, you know, it's tracked every stop it makes. So the longer it sits in a warehouse or sits at the place where it was dropped off and the tracking system is not being updated, the bad guys who were shipping the stuff get suspicious, so it put us under a lot of pressure to get that seed replicated fairly quickly.
NARRATOR: The replica seed was in Des Moines; the FedEx was in Chicago; and that, as we know, is a five-hour drive. With time running out, Mark got hold of an FBI aircraft. But the pilot was almost out of flying time.
MARK BETTEN: So he radioed ahead when he was about an hour outside Des Moines and said: ‘When I land in Des Moines I've only got about 30 minutes on the ground where you have to get me that new purple seed or I'm grounded until the next day.’ So we ran out to Pioneer and got the purple seed we needed and then we were driving down the interstate, running lights and siren going about 110 miles per hour. Just as we got there, our pilot was landing. We took that purple seed and ran out of the plane, put it on the plane, and he was able to get back off and get it back out on the FedEx shipment. That was a very intense time pressure that we were under during that operation.
NARRATOR: The five boxes of replica seed were on their way to China. Spring turned into summer, the corn began to grow and then, in late August, Mark got word that some of the Chinese suspects were on their way back to the US. This time they included the man the FBI now suspected to be the ringleader. His name was Li Shaoming. Dr Li. Mo Hailong, you’ll recall, worked for a company called Dabeinong, or DBN. DBN had a corn seed subsidiary and Dr Li was the CEO. This wasn’t his first visit to the Midwest. Dr Li was one of those three men in the grower field outside Des Moines the previous September. Dr Li was the man Mark really wanted. Once more he set up a surveillance team.
MARK BETTEN: And they spent large amounts of time driving around rural parts of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and stopping periodically, getting out and what looked like they were collecting seeds.
NARRATOR: It took them several weeks. And then, at the end of September they were back at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Dr Li and one of the other men were on their way home to China. The FBI needed to know what they were taking with them.
MARK BETTEN: We knew they were flying out to Beijing. And when they checked their bags in at the ticket counter at the airport, we had customs officials pull their bags aside down in the baggage area.
NARRATOR: Dr Li’s luggage contained two boxes of what looked like microwave popcorn, well-known brands, the boxes apparently factory sealed. But inside each box, stashed under the popcorn, were about 100 small manila envelopes.
MARK BETTEN: inside each of those envelopes was approximately eight kernels of individual corn with a generic four digit number written on the outside of each envelope.
NARRATOR: They found corn seed in the second man’s luggage too, wrapped in paper napkins hidden in his clothes. And so they went upstairs to the departure lounge to confront the two men. Dr Li, they discovered, didn’t speak much English. The second man insisted that he was travelling alone. When he turned his pockets out, there were more paper napkins, more seeds. It’s a critical moment in the investigation. Genetically modified seeds contain secrets. And here you have two men caught in the act of smuggling what look like genetically modified seeds out of the country. But it could be just ordinary seed. A bit unlikely in the circumstances. But still, there’s that nagging question: have you got enough evidence to make the case? What do you think? Is it time to slap the handcuffs on? You need to decide fast. The flight to Beijing is about to depart.
MARK BETTEN: We had some pretty vociferous arguments about whether to arrest them at that point or not to arrest them. I wanted to arrest them. I felt that we had enough evidence at that point. But unfortunately, I was overruled on that issue.
NARRATOR: They just couldn’t be 100 percent sure that the corn they had found was indeed the highly engineered seed they thought it was. So, with a heavy heart, Mark had to watch the flight take off with Dr Li and his accomplice on board ... but the corn stayed behind.
MARK BETTEN: We seized all those boxes of corn. And each of them contained some of the best intellectual male and female inbred lines of seed belonging to Pioneer and Monsanto. Millions and millions of dollars of research in those popcorn boxes that we seized that day.
NARRATOR: Dr Li had clearly been shaken by the incident.
MARK BETTEN: We found some communications later where they were discussing whether it was just luck that the customs officials found it, you know, just by random or whether they thought somebody was actually investigating them.
NARRATOR: But hopefully they’d get another chance. Because a week or two later Mark got hold of the evidence that he knew would nail this conspiracy. It came from a listening device in one of the cars the men had rented at the airport. At this point Mark becomes a little shy about what he can and can’t discuss. At some point in the investigation he had been able to make use of FISA.
MARK BETTEN: FISA is an acronym which stands for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It's a statutory scheme here in the United States that creates a secret court that hears cases involving national security matters and they can issue a variety of court orders and warrants and things of that nature that remain secret.
NARRATOR: Secret court. National security. I think you get the picture. This is a powerful weapon. It applies to foreign powers or agents of foreign powers suspected of espionage and terrorism. This is no run-of-the-mill instrument of law enforcement. The fact that the FBI had been able to make use of FISA in this case will give you a sense of what the US government believed was at stake here. Washington calculates that it loses hundreds of billions of dollars in intellectual property theft every year. It has identified China as the biggest culprit. So, Mark had been able to put a listening device inside one of the rental cars and he’d recorded the conversation. But, as I said, he’s shy about what he can say about this.
MARK BETTEN: Yeah, I can’t comment on that part. I can tell you the recording that you're talking about was a court-authorized listening device, but I can't get into what was authorized by FISA, what was authorized by, you know, things of that nature or even what was before the FISA court.
NARRATOR: The FBI had recorded a conversation between two of the Chinese men who had come in from Beijing every now and then to help out. One of them was the man so nearly detained at O’Hare with Dr Li - the one who’d actually had seeds in his pocket. His name was Ye Jian. The second man was called Lin Yong. The two of them had spent several days together in early September driving around Illinois. The recording device showed them identifying fields belonging to DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto and stopping to pick up ears of corn.
MARK BETTEN: And that device is what essentially broke the case wide open because it showed exactly what they were doing during the course of the case. They discussed it. At one point the one individual, Lin Yong, even said that he’d studied law, and the offenses that they were committing were extremely serious and that they could be treated as spies. And that they needed to be extremely careful because if they ever got caught, they could get sentenced to life in prison in the United States. And so they had an extensive conversation about that type of activity. And that listening device is really what made the case.
NARRATOR: So Mark would now be able to show in court that the conspirators knew exactly what they were doing. But the conversations had been in Mandarin and they took a while to translate. So by the time the FBI knew what they had recorded, Dr Li and co. were all safely back in China. Annoying, no? And so 2012 turned into 2013 and the case went cold. The planting season came and went and there was no sign of Dr Li. Perhaps he really had been spooked by his close shave at O’Hare. Mo Hailong, meanwhile, was still coming back to the Midwest. But now he was talking to pig farmers.
MARK BETTEN: He had been tasked by his company to transition into swine production because his company, that Dabeinong group, not only did they have a seed subsidiary, but they also had a subsidiary that focused on swine production and hog production. Iowa’s also a very large hog producer. In fact, there are more hogs in Iowa than there are people.
NARRATOR: It must have been a frustrating summer. They’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the investigation, the surveillance teams, the aircraft, the listening devices. You can imagine the kind of conversations going on at FBI headquarters. The pressure to make an arrest must have become acute.
MARK BETTEN: I think most of the pressure I felt personally, and I think the investigative team, came from the thought that these bad actors were coming over here, stealing significant intellectual property to take back to benefit their own companies - in this case, back in China, back in Beijing - that added a significant amount of pressure because, as I said, some of these products that they were targeting and stealing were worth millions of dollars. And so that also added a fair amount of pressure in this case.
NARRATOR: But most of the suspects, most importantly, Dr Li, were in China, out of reach.
MARK BETTEN: So during most of 2013 we were just hyper vigilant, waiting for Dr Li Shaoming to fly into the country or a partner country where we could get him arrested on a warrant.
NARRATOR: They began to pin their hopes on a large annual agricultural conference due to be held in Chicago, an event Dr Li had attended in the past.
MARK BETTEN: It was what I called the ‘Super Bowl Of Seed’. It was probably the most prominent conference for seed producers in the world. So we thought that there was a pretty good chance he might attend that event, because we also thought the incident at O'Hare airport was far enough removed, that maybe now he was more comfortable and would come back for that.
NARRATOR: Dr Li was, however, apparently able to resist the lure of the Super Bowl of Seed. At which point FBI headquarters said enough was enough. It was time to cut their losses; time to arrest Mo Hailong, the man spotted on his knees in an Iowa cornfield more than two and a half years earlier.
MARK BETTEN: It was kind of our traditional, typical white collar fraud arrest. We sent about four to five agents out to his house relatively early in the morning. He came to the door and they arrested him without any incident. He was cooperative. He did say that he did not want to talk. He wanted to talk to a lawyer.
NARRATOR: It was only then then the FBI discovered that Mo Hailong had been scoping out cornfields in the Midwest long before that incident in 2011. The conspiracy had been going on for years.
MARK BETTEN: Mo Hailong is a very well-educated, very smart, hardworking individual. I don't think anybody questions that. When he first started on this, I guess, scheme to steal the intellectual property of the seed companies, he knew nothing about corn breeding. And that was probably around 2007, 2008. And so he taught himself what he needed to know. He picked it up pretty quickly. And then we believe in and around 2009 is when things really started to ramp up and they started to actively steal some of these inbred lines of corn seed.
NARRATOR: So it seems a bit odd, don’t you think, that he hadn’t been spotted before?
MARK BETTEN: I attribute part of that to ... he was a very cautious individual. He was a very good talker. If he was discovered, I'm sure he just talked his way out of it. And there was never a report made. People in the Midwest, they are in general, very trusting people. So they come across somebody who's poking around in their field or maybe acting suspiciously, and he has a good story and says: ‘I'm a researcher at the University of Whatever, just seeing how you plant.’ Nine out of 10 people in the Midwest are going to believe that person.
NARRATOR: In 2016 Mo Hailong pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal trade secrets. He was given a three-year prison sentence and deported at the end of it. So, you’ve got to ask: Had that two-and-a-half year investigation been worth it? Those hundreds of thousands of dollars? They’d indicted but failed to arrest five other suspects, all of them Chinese nationals, including Dr Li, the suspected ring-leader. They’d arrested a seventh suspect, Mo Hailong’s sister, but had to drop the charges.
MARK BETTEN: When we got November, December 2013, I was really hopeful that Dr Li Shaoming was going to return. And when he did not return for that conference and we were told that we're going to have to arrest just Mo Hailong at that point, it was pretty demoralizing, I would say. It was still a successful case, but I was really disappointed that given the time and the resources, and the money that we had put into the case, that we were unable to arrest more than just Mo Hailong.
NARRATOR: And there were still plenty of questions such as: Did Mo Hailong ever successfully get seed out to China? Answer: Almost certainly, yes.
MARK BETTEN: Several of the documents that were on his computer indicated that during the course of the conspiracy - really starting in earnest in the 2009/2010 timeframe - they were typically obtaining anywhere from 200 to 300, 400 pounds of seed and mailing it back to Beijing. So we knew that they did obtain seeds.
NARRATOR: And in 2012, on the day of the popcorn incident at O’Hare airport, two other men flew out of Chicago with a set of seeds. One of them was on a domestic flight to Florida, so his bags weren’t searched by customs. Yes, that’s right. Mo Hailong.
MARK BETTEN: And unfortunately, we did not get that set of seeds. We didn't realize he had a set of seeds with him until we seized documents off of his computer from the search warrant after he was arrested. We were never able to confirm he, in fact, sent his set of those male inbred seeds back to Beijing. But I feel pretty comfortable saying that I'd probably bet my bank balance that if you were to do DNA testing on some of the genome of some of that seed that's being sold under the DBN name right now, you would find a fair amount of germplasm that belongs to either Pioneer or Monsanto in those products.
NARRATOR: Another question would be this: Was this really only a piece of private speculation, an act of corn seed piracy dreamed up at DBN headquarters? Or was the Chinese state also involved? The investigators found an intriguing message on Mo Hailong’s computer sent to him by Dr Li in 2009, with reference to one of the large seed companies. ‘Pioneer’s prowess,’ it read, ‘has shaken the Chinese government. There is a serious need for a national hero.’ Is that what Mo Hailong was supposed to become? A national hero? Remember how he insinuated himself into that state banquet in Des Moines during the visit of Xi Jinping? Was this whole thing a case of government-sponsored espionage, government-sponsored theft of trade secrets? Answer: Maybe.
MARK BETTEN: Well, I have my personal views on it based on some of the evidence I saw during the case but we were never able to establish it to the point where we could charge anybody, to the point of proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is what the standard that we require here in the United States. So, yeah, we could not fully establish that.
NARRATOR: And there’s one more thing. On the same day that the FBI knocked on Mo Hailong’s door in Florida, they also picked up two research scientists from China in Kansas and Arkansas. They were charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets - trade secrets contained in genetically modified rice seeds.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another mission with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, at SPYSCAPE.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the subject. These stories are told from their perspective and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Mark Betten is a retired FBI special agent who has caught kidnappers, busted corrupt police officers and worked on counterterrorism cases. Betten also headed a two-year investigation into agricultural espionage that stretched from Iowa to Florida, Illinois and China - possibly even into the highest echelons of Beijing’s government.