A Novel-Like Tale Of Cloak, Dagger Unfolds in Court

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The narrative about a veteran State Department official smitten with a younger Taiwanese intelligence officer reads like a John le Carré novel.

However, the story — replete with romantic encounters and cloak-and-dagger tradecraft — is laid out not in a book, but a little-noticed 43-page court filing submitted last week by federal prosecutors in Virginia.

The unusually-detailed account is part of the government’s effort to withdraw from a plea agreement it reached last year with one of the State Department’s highest ranking Asia experts, Donald Keyser. Keyser pleaded guilty in December to charges that he lied about his relationship with the Taiwanese agent, Isabelle Cheng, and concealed a visit he made to Taiwan in 2003. The American diplomat also admitted to keeping thousands of classified documents at his Fairfax Station, Va., home.

Prosecutors contend Keyser, 62, breached the agreement by failing to cooperate in discussions aimed at assessing the damage his activities may have caused to national security. “Instead of volunteering information about matters that he knows are of interest to the government, he has addressed issues of importance only when directly asked. Even then, his answers have been evasive and incredible,” prosecutors wrote.

Keyser was arrested in September 2004, days after FBI agents confronted him as he departed from a meeting with Ms. Cheng and the head of Taiwanese intelligence in Washington, Michael Huang.

Ms. Cheng, who is in her mid-30s, agreed to cooperate with the FBI and turned over numerous e-mails she received from Keyser, as well as cables she prepared for Taipei about information Keyser provided. A 2002 e-mail from Keyser details his conversations with President Jiang in connection with meetings the Chinese leader held in Texas with President Bush.

“I’m glad the background helped. By now you know that, as we say, ‘Your wish is my command,'” Keyser wrote to Ms. Cheng in 2003.

The government claims that in his discussions with the Taiwanese agent, Keyser also fingered a former State Department official as a potential spy.

“This is the kind of person who is ripe for recruitment by careful, methodical serious intelligence agencies,” Keyser wrote in a 2004 e-mail to Ms. Cheng. “In the days of the Cold War, Soviet and East German intelligence offices were quite practiced at identifying people like this, people who did not wake up one day and say, ‘I want to be a traitor,’ but people whose relatively minor weaknesses and ego gratification needs made them potential targets.”

The individual’s name was deleted from the papers filed with the court. According to the government, Keyser later said the statement was taken out of context.

The prosecution also contends that Keyser has not been honest with the government about the facts of his relationship with Ms.Cheng. The court filing goes into unusual detail about two episodes in which FBI agents observed the pair in a car with Ms. Cheng “in the front passenger seat leaning across towards the defendant with her back facing upward and head below the line of observation.”

Prosecutors contend that after one of the couple’s allegedly-intimate vehicular encounters, Keyser called Ms. Cheng on her cellular phone and said, “The food was good. The wine was good. The champagne was good, and you were good.”

Prosecutors said Keyser “became infatuated” with the young Taiwanese agent, writing in an e-mail, “Having my arm around your shoulder, your head resting against my shoulder, and then on my chest, your hand in mine for a couple of hours while you were in ‘Dreamland’ was more than ample compensation.”

The court filing indicates that Keyser acknowledged kissing and embracing Ms. Cheng. He said that on at least one such occasion Ms. Cheng was nude, but he denied the encounter included any sexual act.

In a statement, Keyser’s attorney, Robert Litt, said the government’s filing was unfair and inaccurate. “Mr. Keyser denies that he was ever acting on behalf of Taiwan’s intelligence agency, and that he has failed to comply with the plea bargain,” the lawyer said. “The government’s submission contains numerous inaccuracies and misinterpretations of innocuous facts.”

According to the prosecution, Keyser failed two lie-detector tests in which he was asked about his trip to Taiwan in 2003. Such tests are not normally admissible in court, but Keyser agreed it could be introduced in any dispute about his cooperation.

Keyser has maintained that he met with no intelligence officials other than Ms. Cheng during his three-day visit to Taipei. However, prosecutors indicated that they recently received new information that Keyser met with someone higher-up in the Taiwanese intelligence apparatus.

Keyser has not been charged with espionage, but the prosecution described the American diplomat’s behavior at some of his meetings with Ms. Cheng as “consistent with espionage tradecraft.”

In some respects, the level of detail the government placed on the public record could be viewed as undercutting the notion that Keyser relayed truly sensitive information to the Taiwanese. None of the 70 exhibits attached to the prosecution’s pleading was placed under seal.

“It’s not your normal Justice Department memorandum,” a policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood, said. He said much of the behavior described in the filing could be innocent. “The fact that a diplomat may share information that someone else finds to be of strategic intelligence value does not automatically make the diplomat a spy.”

The unusual filing opens a window onto the FBI’s counterintelligence tradecraft by discussing how the agency responded when Keyser and Ms. Cheng abruptly learned that they were under surveillance.

Prosecutors said on August 17, 2004, the pair were in Keyser’s car near an electric company facility when a passerby approached them and reported “he had seen a Caucasian man in a car with District of Columbia tags taking photographs nearby.”

The following day, in a phone conversation with Ms. Cheng, Keyser expressed concern. “There are probably as many as five different explanations. I don’t particularly like any of them,” he allegedly said.

The prosecution disclosed that FBI agents sent a local police detective to Keyser’s home 10 days later with a made-up story about an investigation into possible terrorism involving public utilities.

Prosecutors wrote that after the officer departed, Keyser called Ms. Cheng to report that the “mystery … that we experienced a while back has now been resolved.”

While she was allegedly involved with Keyser, Ms. Cheng was engaged to and reportedly married a British man, Christopher Cockel, who served as the Washington correspondent for an English-language Taiwnese newspaper, the China Post. The government said Ms. Cheng’s other relationship added to the government’s “concerns regarding her motivation for engaging in an intimate relationship with the defendant.”

A news brief in the Washington Post last week mentioned the filing but gave scant details.

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