Clandestine agents. Foreign spies. Intelligence. Hawaii is better known for sunbathing on the beach or surfing than high-stakes sleuthing — but the case of a 59-year-old civilian defense contractor accused of giving military secrets to his younger Chinese girlfriend is a reminder that the US state is a prime target for espionage. A high concentration of important military commands means there is a great deal of information on the islands that potential adversaries want to know.
Case in point: Most of the FBI’s resources in Hawaii are devoted to counterintelligence — not drug trafficking or terrorism.
“One of the FBI’s priorities in Hawaii is keeping America’s secrets safe from agents of foreign powers,” said Tom Simon, a special agent in Honolulu. “With the amount of military and classified material in Hawaii, it remains a top priority for the FBI.”
It helps that the state, population 1.4 million, is not a hotbed of violent crime. That allows agents to focus much of their efforts on thwarting spooks.
The case against Benjamin Bishop, a defense contractor working for the US Pacific Command when he was arrested on March 15, offers a glimpse of the information potential adversaries might be looking for.
Bishop knows US secrets on countering weapons of mass destruction, nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense, according to a declaration filed in court by Pacific Command Chief of Staff Major General Anthony Crutchfield.
Bishop worked on cybersecurity and is familiar with how the US would counter adversaries in electronic warfare, air combat, undersea warfare, energy security and cyberspace, the declaration says.
Investigators say Bishop gave his girlfriend — a 27-year-old graduate student he met at an international military conference in Hawaii — classified information on nuclear weapons, war plans and missile defense.
Bishop has not been charged with outright espionage, which the law defines as giving national security secrets to someone for the purpose of helping a foreign government or harming the US, but he has been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act: communicating defense secrets to someone not entitled to receive it and unlawful retention of defense documents.
Prosecutors have not said they believe the girlfriend is working for the Chinese government or that she has given anything she learned from Bishop to anyone else, but an FBI affidavit filed in support of the charges speculates she may have attended the conference specifically to target people like Bishop who work with classified information.
Bishop has not yet entered a plea, but his lawyer says his client would not do anything to harm the US. The attorney, Birney Bervar, says the case is not about espionage but about two people in love.
Spying is not new to Hawaii.
In the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a Japanese vice consul in Honolulu spent much of his time monitoring and reporting on the comings and goings of the US Navy. Takeo Yoshikawa is said to have favored the view of Pearl Harbor he would get at a tea house — still in business today as the Natsunoya restaurant — in a hilly neighborhood overlooking the naval base.
The Soviet Union kept an intelligence-collecting ship off the coast of Oahu during the Cold War to monitor US military communications, said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cossa says China would have the biggest interest in US military operations in Hawaii, followed by Russia.
Their targets? Pacific Command is the US military’s headquarters for the Asia-Pacific region. The US Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps each have their own Pacific headquarters on Oahu. The National Security Agency also keeps an intelligence center in central Oahu.
There is a major missile defense testing site on the island of Kauai. A high-powered missile defense radar capable of tracking a baseball-sized object 4,000km away — called the Sea-Based X-band Radar — visits Pearl Harbor regularly.
The reconnaissance goes both ways. The US is eager to gather intelligence on new ships, planes and other equipment China is adding to its military.