A member of Congress with no suspicions about socializing with a Chinese national has no place on the House Intelligence Committee, according to outgoing Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., a former intelligence officer.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., showed a ‘ridiculous, stupid’ lapse in judgment when he networked with a suspected Chinese spy disguised as an exchange student, named Christine Fang or Fang Fang, and allowed other officials and people close to him to do the same, Riggleman said Tuesday.
His handling of the case may have left others vulnerable, including some campaign donors after she helped with fundraising for his 2014 reelection bid, said Riggleman.
“The judgment and the fact that she had access to other people that did not know that she was an asset, that’s a huge issue,” Riggleman told Fox News.
Swalwell hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing and Fang is not suspected of getting any classified information.
But that’s beside the point, he said. He warned that others in sensitive positions should be skeptical of the intentions of foreign nationals who approach them.
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“I was given a card by a Chinese lobbyist in my office…I had a female say ‘please reach out to me, I would love to talk to you,’” Riggleman said. “What do you think the chances of me are going to the local bar with a Chinese national who came in to lobby? Zero. It’s ridiculous, stupid.”
Fang presented numerous red flags, Riggleman said: She was a Chinese national, she had access to the congressman and his fundraising and she was reportedly able to place an intern in his office.
Fang targeted multiple Americans, but none as high-profile as Swalwell, according to a report in Axios. They met when he was a city councilman in Dublin, Calif., and remained in contact as he rose in politics, until the FBI warned him about her in 2015.
It remains unclear whether the congressman warned anyone else who met the alleged spy after the FBI delivered the defensive briefing. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and he’s been largely mum about the nature of his acquaintance with Fang.
But his brother and father remained Facebook friends with Fang until earlier this month. Others did too, including a pair of California mayors and apparent employees at the California university she used for cover.
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Fang, who helped fundraise for Swalwell’s 2014 reelection campaign, may have obtained sensitive information on some of his donors, Riggleman warned, which would be standard intelligence gathering for foreign spies.
“Nobody thinks Eric Swalwell’s an awful person,” Riggleman said. “But he had awful judgment, and that should automatically disqualify you from being on the Intel Committee.”
Riggleman joins a growing number of Republican House members who have called for Swalwell to either step down from the Intelligence Committee or be forcibly removed.
A transfer of responsibilities or a revocation of security clearance should be standard procedure after such intelligence mishaps, Riggleman said, even if there is no suspected wrongdoing.
“We’re not saying that he meant to do something wrong, but if you have that kind of lack of judgment, you probably shouldn’t be on the Intelligence Committee,” Riggleman said. “It’s just a simple thing.”
Being removed from intelligence work should be standard in this case, he said.
“It’s not about being angry or wanting to hurt somebody,” Riggleman said.
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Former intelligence officials have warned that operations like Fang’s are likely common and target a range of officials at all levels of government. But the higher they are, the more desirable a target they may be.
Shortly after public reports emerged that Fang had helped place an intern in Swalwell’s office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, defended Swalwell’s position on the committee. So did Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who blamed “faux outrage” for the issue in an interview with Fox in Los Angeles.
Pelosi and Schiff, both California Democrats like Swalwell, in separate media appearances dismissed criticism of Swalwell’s position on the committee as “deflection” away from allegations of support for the QAnon conspiracy among Republicans.
Outside of Congress, other intelligence experts also have weighed in. A former CIA senior clandestine services officer told Fox News earlier this month that Swalwell should keep his seat on the committee but also come clean about what happened.
“Taking action means advising our citizenry of what’s going on, you know, about this brazen attack so that they’re forewarned,” he said.
Swalwell has so far declined to discuss the case in detail, not responding to questions from Fox News or other outlets about Fang other than to note that the FBI did not suspect him of wrongdoing.
The House speaker also pushed back against calls to perform background checks on incoming congressional interns.
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“I don’t know that it means that we have background checks for every intern who comes into the Capitol,” she said.
Riggleman scoffed at that, noting new hires at his Virginia distillery undergo checks.
“I find it interesting that you get interns working next to some of the strongest people in the world that don’t do background checks. There should be standardized background checks for every single individual, not only that, interns should be American citizens, it’s not because I don’t love everybody, it’s because that’s just the way it is,” Riggleman said.
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Last week, a group of 17 House GOP members wrote a letter to Pelosi seeking Swalwell’s removal from the committee. Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., received a classified briefing on the Fang case last Friday.
“The one answer that I got out of that briefing was there is no way Eric Swalwell should continue to serve on the Intel Committee,” McCarthy said afterward.