June 25, 2011 — -- It was already a salacious story of sex and scandal in the top levels of the Chinese government, but now a recently released U.S. State Department cable is adding an element of international intrigue and old-school espionage to the downfall of a top Chinese official.
The official story, courtesy of the Chinese government, is that in August 2007, Finance Minister Jin Renqing resigned his post "for personal reasons." No other explanation was given. However, Hong Kong-based news outlets quickly picked up on rumors that Renqing had a mistress who was also romantically linked to several other prominent Chinese officials and it was that scandal that forced him out of the public eye.
And so the story stood until earlier this month when the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks published a confidential U.S. State Department cable in which a U.S. official says investigators suspected the mistress was not just a "social butterfly," but a professional foreign spy.
"The woman had been introduced to these men as 'someone working with a Chinese military intelligence department.' However, investigators now believe she is a Taiwan intelligence operative," the cable says.
Renqing, along with the other officials reportedly wooed by his mistress, may have fallen victim to one of the oldest tricks in the espionage book: the honeypot.
"Honeypots or honeytraps are the use by intelligence agencies of a sexually appealing person to ensnare someone in whom they have an interest, most often someone who has access to secrets," Mark Stout, International Spy Museum historian and former CIA analyst, told ABC News. "The honeypot is an oldie, but a goodie, in terms of espionage techniques."
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Though the gambit reaches back into ancient times, perhaps its most famous case came during the First World War when Dutch courtesan Mata Hari was accused of seducing French officials and passing intelligence gleaned from them along to her German handlers.
During the espionage heyday of the Cold War, honeypots became common on both sides, the practice romanticized in James Bond movies.
"The East Germans used this technique very successfully against the West Germans. Often times the targets were actually female," Stout said. "The East Germans would target West German government secretaries who were lonely, single, and most of a certain age by dispatching attractive and considerate men to develop long-term romantic relationships with them."
Such a strategy has not seemed to go out of favor decades later for modern intelligence agencies.
In 2009, England's MI-5 issued a 14-page document to hundreds of British businesses warning against Chinese attempts to set up honeytraps, according to a report by London's The Times. Later the same year, reports emerged that several prominent Russian politicians and businessmen, many critical of the government, had been separately duped into sleeping with a Russian government agent -- with the whole affair caught on hidden camera. Last October, an Israeli rabbi officially blessed honeytrap sex for female spies, according to a study called "Illicit Sex for the Sake of National Security."
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It would not be the first time Taiwanese intelligence agents have gotten in on the act either. In 2004 Donald W. Keyser, a former high-level U.S. State Department official, was accused of passing documents to a female Taiwanese intelligence agent with whom he was romantically linked. He denied he gave up any confidential information, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to a year in prison.
Stout, who also worked at the U.S. State Department, said that U.S. officials are trained to be on the lookout for potential honeytraps in hopes of avoiding the leaks, but he said training can only do so much.
"Ultimately, the honeypot approach is going to be appealing to intelligence services as long as men like women and women like men."
By policy the U.S. State Department does not comment on the authenticity of WikiLeaks cables and U.S.-based representatives for the Chinese and Taiwan governments did not respond to requests for comment on this report.
ABC News' Clarissa Ward contributed to this report.