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U.S. Espionage Probe Focuses on Ex-Diplomat

Retired State Dept. official revered by peers is accused of lying to FBI and taking unauthorized trip to Taiwan.

September 17, 2004|Paul Richter and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — For three decades, his peers in the world of U.S. diplomacy have looked on Donald W. Keyser as the consummate professional.

He dazzled them with his knowledge of East Asia and impressed them with his dedication to his craft. One top China hand at the State Department referred to him as "my hero."

So it was with shock that those who know him learned Thursday that Keyser, until recently the department's No. 2 official for East Asian affairs, was under investigation for possible espionage.

In papers filed in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Keyser was accused of lying to the FBI and taking an unauthorized trip to Taiwan last year in violation of federal rules.

The affidavit said Keyser had visited Taiwan in September 2003 without approval of his boss, the assistant secretary of State for East Asia, and detailed how, in meetings in Washington, Keyser allegedly passed documents to Taiwanese intelligence agents.

The United States and Taiwan are on friendly terms, but the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with the island in 1979 in favor of China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province. Taiwan maintains the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington.

The FBI papers did not say that Keyser took money, and it offered no motive for his actions. Friends found it hard to imagine one.

"It's impossible for me to imagine a situation in which Don would operate outside what he'd been assigned to do," said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist and former colleague. "He represents the very best in our State Department.... I'm really in shock about the whole thing."

Keyser's friends describe him as a brilliant analyst and linguist who was not fired by ideological zeal or by any desire for a life of luxury. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1972, he had served in senior posts in Beijing and Tokyo.

A former Pentagon official who knew him in Beijing described him, because of his knowledge of China, as "practically a national treasure."

Promoted in January to the second-ranking post in the East Asia bureau, Keyser, 61, had told friends that the job required more administrative duties than he preferred. Nevertheless, his friends said, he did not seem unhappy with his work when, in July, he announced he was retiring from the State Department.

At the same time, friends doubted that he was under financial pressure. His wife -- his fourth -- is a senior U.S. government official with a good salary. His only child is grown. And with his expertise, Keyser could probably earn a hefty sum in the private sector, several friends said.

Keyser's arrest Wednesday culminated a four-month investigation in which the FBI turned up such evidence as Keyser's credit card bills at a Christian Dior boutique in Taiwan and followed him to meetings with the Taiwanese agents at several Washington-area restaurants.

The agents' names were not released by the FBI, which identified them in the court affidavit as a 33-year-old Taiwanese national who worked for the National Security Bureau, Taiwan's intelligence agency, and a supervisor, both of whom were stationed at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.

Sources said the 33-year-old agent was a woman.

A spokesman for the Taipei office in Washington, Stephen Chang, said he was unable to identify the two agents but said he firmly believed neither had engaged in any wrongdoing.

"Taiwan and the United States have long shared a very friendly relationship," he said. "Our representative office in the United States and officials from various departments frequently interact on work-related matters."

Keyser was charged with making a false statement for failing to list the Taiwan trip on a diplomatic security clearance form he completed in May 2004, which required him to list foreign countries he visited over the last seven years.

He admitted to the FBI that he did not disclose his trip to Taiwan. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000.

Keyser was arrested Wednesday and appeared in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. He was released after posting an unsecured $500,000 bond and agreeing not to leave the Washington area, among other conditions.

His attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.

Keyser's trip to Taipei came while he was on official business in China and Japan. He indicated to his superiors that he was taking three days of annual leave and spending the time in Tokyo, according to the FBI affidavit, but instead traveled to Taiwan.

The FBI said that the 33-year-old Taiwanese agent, identified in court papers as "Foreign Person One," acknowledged meeting with Keyser in Taipei between Sept. 3 and Sept. 6 last year.

Federal investigators also determined that Keyser had made several purchases in Taipei during that period with his State Department Credit Union check card, including a $570.01 bill at Christian Dior and $333.19 at the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei hotel.

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