TAIPEI — Following the arrest of a decorated retired U.S. Army officer on allegations of passing information to China, friends of the suspect are questioning whether the U.S. Justice Department is going after the wrong man.
Benjamin Bishop, 59, was arrested March 15 and is accused of being ensnared in a classic Chinese honeytrap involving a 27-year old Chinese college student. However, Bishop’s friends describe an American patriot, not a spy for China.
He is specifically accused of transmitting information regarding “existing war plans, information regarding nuclear weapons and relations with international partners, to an email address known to be used by Person 1,” according to the criminal complaint against him.
The Defense Meritorious Service Medal is among the many medals Bishop — who was working at U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) in Hawaii when he was arrested — has earned over his career.
One former U.S. Army officer and friend said Bishop “was always a quiet and a bit odd sort of fellow but this? Never would [have] seen it coming.”
Bishop and his court-appointed attorney, Birney Bervar, did not respond to requests for comment.
Bishop was an activated U.S. Army reservist working for PACOM from March 2009 to April 2012. Then in May 2012, he began working at PACOM under contract for an unidentified defense contractor.
Prior to becoming a contractor, Bishop served in PACOM’s J5 Strategic Planning Policy Directorate, said one source who knew him. Specifically, Bishop served under J57, which handles weapons of mass destruction, homeland defense, consequence management and functional plans and policy, “so he would have been in the thick of all the strategic level stuff with his uniform position,” he said.
The criminal complaint filed by Scott Freeman, a special agent with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, said there is “probable cause” that Bishop communicated classified U.S. national defense information to an unidentified 27-year-old female Chinese citizen who was in the U.S. on a non-immigrant J1 student visa, identified only as “Person 1” in the complaint.
Bishop allegedly met “Person 1” at a “conference regarding international military defense issues.” In the complaint, the FBI agent said, “based on my training and experience, Person 1 may have been at the conference in order to target individuals such as Bishop who work with and have access to U.S. classified information.”
Sources in Hawaii indicate the Pacific Forum CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) sponsored the conference in early 2011.
Both former and current associates of the forum indicate Bishop had taken members of the Vasey Fellowship Program and Young Leaders Program on tours of PACOM.
According to the FBI complaint, “after their initial meeting, Bishop and Person 1 commenced a relationship which they subsequently maintained through correspondence and personal visits.” The relationship allegedly began in June 2011 and was “hidden” from U.S. government officials.
In September 2011, Bishop allegedly failed to identify her on an SF-86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions, which is required to report foreign contacts. Later, in February 2012, Bishop submitted a Request for Leave to travel to the U.K. to visit Person 1, the complaint said. “On the form, Bishop changed the name of Person 1 by slightly changing her given name to a masculine form of the same name and by adding a letter to the surname of Person 1, thereby obscuring the gender and identity of Person 1.”
One friend speculated this might have been a misunderstanding. “Ben had a daughter, so it could be her. I heard that he did take the girl to Paris, France.”
Information was also allegedly transmitted by telephone on Sept. 2, 2012, in which Bishop allegedly provided “secret level” information on “planned deployment of U.S. strategic nuclear systems, as well as the ability of the U.S. to detect low and medium range ballistic missiles of foreign governments.”
In a second phone call on Sept. 13, 2012, Bishop allegedly provided “secret level” information about the “proposed deployment of a U.S. radar system in the Pacific Rim.”
However, the complaint also says, “on multiple occasions during the relevant time frame, Person 1 has represented to Bishop that she did not want him to disclose classified information to her. Bishop represented to her that he would not.”
A “court authorized physical search” of Bishop’s home in November 2012 discovered “12 individual documents each with classification markings at the secret level.” One document was identified as “Defense Planning Guidance 2014-2018,” which contains “Fiscal Year 2014-2018 Defense Planning Guidance governing the resource allocation of the Department of Defense and is the definitive planning document for force development, articulating the mission requirements for the Department of Defense at the strategic level.”
However, according to the complaint, it was not until Feb. 5, 2013, that “Person 1” asked Bishop to conduct research for her. “She asked for him to advise her regarding what western nations know about the operation of a particular naval asset of the People’s Republic of China.”
This was “outside the scope of and not related to Bishop’s regular work assignments.” Bishop allegedly acted on her request by “conducting open source research on the topic” and was observed “collecting and reviewing classified information concerning the subject matter, and in doing so, has misrepresented himself” to the U.S. government. Documents “related to the subject matter of Person 1’s request” were recovered at his workspace by investigators on Feb. 28.
Bishop’s friends suggest he was attempting to hide an embarrassing affair with a much younger woman, whose graduate studies intersected his career choice.
One friend confirmed Bishop was taking classes in Mandarin at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, but beyond that showed only a “general interest in China, but it seemed like just the usual stuff about [military] modernization.” Other languages studied during his career include Thai and it has been confirmed that Bishop had married a Thai citizen and had a daughter.
His LinkedIn profile further states that prior to his role at PACOM, Bishop served in the U.S. Army in the Joint Requirements Oversight Council/Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System and Cybersecurity and Operational Energy from February 2002 to May 2012.
Part of this career span, 2008 to 2012, was spent working as a Special Forces strategic planner within PACOM and a special operations planner within U.S. Joint Forces Command (Joint Enabling Capabilities Command).