- Benjamin Pierce Bishop, 59, of Honolulu, charged with passing on secrets
- The defense contractor met younger lover at military defense conference
- He did not tell authorities about her as he should have done
- A covert search of his home in Hawaii found documents marked ‘secret’
PUBLISHED: 13:27 EST, 20 March 2013 | UPDATED: 14:27 EST, 20 March 2013
U.S. officials say a 27-year-old university student from China started a relationship with a civilian defense contractor more than twice her age and then found out classified information on U.S. nuclear weaponry, missile defenses and war plans.
But is she a spy?
It is clear the Justice Department believes the woman’s boyfriend broke the law, but the criminal complaint that outlines the charges against him never formally accuses her of any crime.
It just paints a picture of a young woman who seems to be involved in espionage.
A Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing says the government knows the woman’s location and is continuing to investigate her role.
Her identity and whereabouts haven’t been released, and U.S. authorities also haven’t said publicly whether they believe she is working for the Chinese government.
She lives in the United States as a student on a J-1 visa, according to an affidavit the FBI filed this week by the FBI in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
Her boyfriend, Benjamin Bishop, a 59-year-old civilian defense contractor who works at Pacific Command, met the woman at a Hawaii conference on military defense issues.
The counterintelligence agent investigating Bishop said the woman may have been at the conference specifically to meet people like Bishop, who work with and have access to certain classified information, the affidavit said.
They began an intimate, romantic relationship in June 2011, according to the affidavit. At the time, Bishop was working at a Pacific Command office that develops plans to deter potential U.S. adversaries, according to his LinkedIn profile online.
Bishop is scheduled to appear in federal court Friday for a hearing on whether he should stay in detention while prosecutors pursue their case.
Birney Bervar, Bishop’s attorney, said he planned to seek bail but wasn’t optimistic he would be successful. Bervar declined to discuss details of the case, saying he had not yet spoken in depth to his client.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 1.
The affidavit says the woman told Bishop repeatedly she didn’t want him to tell her anything classified but continued to question Bishop about his work.
Bishop, on the other hand, told her he wouldn’t give her any classified information but did so anyway, the document said.
Bishop, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, is accused of telling her secrets about U.S. nuclear weapons, missile defenses, war plans, early warning radar systems and other issues.
Last month, the woman asked Bishop what western countries knew about a Chinese naval asset. This fell outside the scope of Bishop’s work but he conducted open source record research for her and collected and reviewed classified information on the topic, the affidavit said.
Bishop’s security clearance required him to disclose his contacts with foreign nationals, but the affidavit says he failed to let officials know about his relationship with the woman.
The FBI declined further comment on Tuesday. A Justice Department spokesman in Honolulu did not return a call seeking comment.
Bishop was married until last year, according to state documents in Utah. His ex-wife declined comment when approached by The Associated Press on Tuesday at her home in Odgen, Utah.
Her neighbor, Sandra Doyle, said it was clear Bishop was having an affair with a Chinese woman prior to the divorce. Doyle, who said she is friends with the ex-wife, said the girlfriend was a university student in the District of Columbia, though she didn’t know which school.
Doyle said neighbors knew Bishop worked for the government in Hawaii but were unclear on his exact job.
Larry Wortzel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said China has used sexual entrapment as a means to gather intelligence before and the allegations aren’t surprising.
As an Army reserve officer and defense contractor, Bishop would have received security briefings on this and understood ‘how sex may be used for intelligence targeting,’ Wortzel said.
Whether U.S. national security was damaged by any of the alleged disclosures would depend on how detailed the information was and whether the woman knew any of it was classified, said Carl Baker, director of programs at Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Information on weapons could be harmful because it could tell a potential enemy what U.S. weapons system can do as well as what capabilities the adversary would need to develop to counter U.S. capabilities, he said.
Bishop’s position wouldn’t have given him access to specifics about weapons technology, though, Baker said.
Leaked details on military plans might also be detrimental.
‘That’s an important part, because if you divulge enough information about the planning process, you end up giving information that reveals a strategy and how you could counter that strategy,’ Baker said.
The key issues for any trial will be Bishop’s intent and the sophistication of the information he passed on, Baker said.
Bishop is charged with one count of communicating national defense information to a person not entitled to receive it and one count of unlawfully retaining national defense documents and plans.