Sheriff Joe Arpaio (seen here crushing the testicles of an invisible immigrant) allegedly, we said allegedly, failed to report an alleged Chinese spy who infiltrated the Arizona Counter Terrorism [sic; seriously, Arizona, buy an AP style book] Information Center. That's according to ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, but we heard about this through The Verge, so they get the linky. Grab a fresh cup of coffee, because this story gets deep in a hurry.

Arizona's biggest counterterrorism center may be covering up a massive data breach. A new investigation from ProPublica and The Center for Investigative Reporting looks at Lizhong Fan, a Chinese national hired at Arizona's Counterterrorism Information Center in 2007. In June of that year, Fan abruptly left the country, flying back to Beijing with two laptops and a number of other hard drives in his luggage. [...]

Uh oh! So how is Sheriff Joe involved?

Under Arizona law, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose agencies admitted Fan into the intelligence center, were required to disclose to the public any “unauthorized acquisition and access to unencrypted or unredacted computerized data” that includes names and other personal information.

To this day, they have not.

Fan gained his sponsorship to work at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center through a private contractor called Hummingbird Defense Systems. Hummingbird applied for Fan's work visa without doing any of its own background checks, because they just sorta figured that Sheriff Joe and the rest of the national security apparatus would do that for them. Turns out: nope!

How did Fan come to gain the trust of this contractor? And how did this contractor come to work for the Arizona Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center? Through a combination of cronyism, grifting, and the ol' honey pot.

[David] Hendershott, Arpaio’s chief deputy, had years before become friends with Steve Greschner, Hummingbird’s chief executive. [...] The company didn’t employ a single engineer; Hummingbird relied instead on outside contractors to make its products function. [...] The company had few prospects until late 2002, when Greschner partnered with a man named Gang Chen [who] had emigrated from China almost a decade earlier and had a green card. [...] Chen sent his business partner, a tall and strikingly beautiful woman named Xunmei Li, better known as Grace, to meet Greschner.

“Some people call that love at first sight,” Greschner said in an interview. “I’m not going to say it’s that.”

He and Li began dating immediately. [...]

Fan, who had a diploma showing he’d earned degrees in computer engineering from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, had done some work for Chen and Li in China, and Greschner said he accepted his lover’s idea that Fan would be a good man for getting the facial recognition program up and running at the intelligence center.

Got that? China identifies grifty American security contractor whose CEO is best buddies with Joe Arpaio's #2. China plants glamourous female agent Grace Li to seduce CEO who is best buddies with Joe Arpaio's #2. Glamorous female agent Grace Li completes her honey pot mission, then suggests that this Fan guy would be a really great hire. CEO trusts Super Spy Grace Li and hires this Fan guy, who turns out to be Super Hacker Lizhong Fan. And when Fan runs back to China with all the secrets, Joe Arpaio's #2 tries to sweep it all under the rug.

Hendershott, the No. 2 man at the sheriff’s office, was concerned about keeping the potential embarrassment from becoming public, according to documents. One email exchange shows that Hendershott contemplated reaching Fan in China and paying him to stay quiet.

"Make sure that he knows that I just want your stuff and no trouble,” Hendershott wrote to Greschner, the Hummingbird executive who had hired Fan. “Just want him to go away. Can he and his wife keep their mouth shut?”

Come on, man. You cannot violate the Stringer Bell Rule, that's just amateur hour.

Well played, Chinese spies. You sent over one of your next-gen super spies, and you done made a fool outta a poor Arizona sheriff's deputy who just wanted another chance at love.

Paul Haney, the former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, said the FBI strongly suspects [Grace] Li is a spy. The suspicions, according to Haney and others interviewed during the investigation, grow out of Li’s contacts with powerful people and institutions in China, and her efforts to help bring American security technology to her native country. As well, a delegation of Chinese airport officials organized by Li, which came to the U.S. to tour security facilities, included at least two people who were, in fact, not airport officials.

“If she is who we think she is,” Haney said, “she’s a professional.”

On the bright side, this episode marks the first recorded instance in which Joe Arpaio did not ask to see someone's birth certificate.

[ProPublica/Center for Investigative Reporting via The Verge]

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