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How To Set a Honeytrap: U.S. Defense Contractor Pleads Guilty to Sharing State Secrets with His Chinese Girlfriend

Theirs was an unconventional love story. He was a 59-year-old, married defense contractor with a Top Secret security clearance. She was a 27-year-old Chinese national with a student visa. They met at a defense conference in Hawaii, where he lived, and began an illicit, long-distance romance that lasted nearly three years and saw him give her reams of classified U.S. military secrets.

But like all good love stories, this one ends unhappily. On Thursday, Benjamin Bishop pled guilty in federal court to charges of unlawfully transmitting and retaining classified national defense information.

No charges have been brought against his girlfriend, whose identity has not been made public.

When the couple began the ill-fated love affair, Bishop was working in cyber defense at the U.S. Pacific Command, and the young woman was attending graduate school in the United States on a J-1 visa. Their courtship was unusual from the beginning: According to an FBI affidavit, she repeatedly asked Bishop not to give her classified information, but nevertheless persisted in asking him questions about his work at Pacific Command. At one point, she even asked him to conduct research for her on "what Western nation's [sic] know about the operation of a particular naval asset of the People's Republic of China," according to the affidavit. Bishop, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, managed to obtain the information she wanted by misrepresenting himself as an active-duty officer to U.S. government personnel.

For obvious reasons, various media have branded her a Chinese "honeytrap," fueling speculation that she's actually a spy who seduced Bishop in order to gain access to sensitive military information. Who needs sophisticated hacker groups, after all, when you have 27-year-old co-eds? FBI Special Agent Scott Freeman acknowledged in an affidavit that that the young woman may have attended the conference in Hawaii "in order to target individuals such as Bishop."

But in court, Bishop's attorney, Birney Bervar, characterized the couple's exchange of secret information as an act of love, not espionage.

Let's hope that's true. Because it seems that Bishop just can't quit this woman. After being arrested and jailed last year, U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi released him to a residential halfway house on the condition that he not contact his girlfriend. So, naturally, he wrote her some love letters, sending them by email and post including, according to a court document, the ominous warning, "I take a risk in sending mail to you. Please do not reveal it to anyone." He was soon remanded back to prison.

If Bishop is convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. As for his mysterious girlfriend, no charges have been filed against her, and court records indicate that she's cooperating with authorities. No word yet on why she asked her beau to collect classified information for her.

But the romantic in us really wants to believe it's just research for her dissertation.

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Another Malaysia Airlines Mystery: Who Pays?

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, but it's only a matter of time before the families of the lost passengers begin to ask a pair of questions: How much money will they receive for the losses of their loved ones, and who will pay?

They are questions that don't necessarily need to wait for the plane to be found to be answered.

As it turns out, there's an international treaty for every occasion. In this case, it's the 1999 Montreal Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, which entered into force in 2003 and standardizes the rights of passengers on international flights.

Under the Montreal Convention, "the airline, even if it's not responsible, is required to compensate the victims' families," said Mike Danko, an aviation attorney in Redwood Shores, Calif., who has worked on litigation related to the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco in July 2013. Passengers of that crash have filed suits against Asiana Airlines and, in January 2014, against Boeing.

In some instances the airline will not even wait until the wreckage is found to start discussing payments -- that was the case when Air France began dispersing money to the family of each passenger aboard a flight that went down off the coast of Brazil in June 2009 just days after it disappeared.

"The question," according to Danko, "is how much."

The treaty entitles families of the victims to payouts of up to about $150,000 per person, but how that gets doled out is specific to each incident. After Air India Express Flight 812 crashed in May 2010, the Indian government said that the airline was liable for up to $160,000 per passenger, but when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 crashed taking off from Beirut in January of the same year, the airline only paid out $20,000 per passenger.

"The real issue, as is the case in all these cases, is under whose law," Danko said. That gets more complicated. Victims' families have the option to sue for more damages in multiple countries under the Montreal Convention, and they will likely file suit in the country where they're most likely to win their cases and receive the highest settlements. In this case, families of the missing passengers can file in Malaysia (because it is the base of operations for the airline), in the country of the victim's residence, or in the country of the victim's intended destination (which is not necessarily Beijing -- if the victim had a connecting flight to another country, the family could sue in that country).

That may give an advantage to families who can bypass Chinese and Malaysian courts, like the families of the three American and nine European passengers. "In some countries, fair compensation for the loss of a son may be deemed to be $20,000. In the United States, that may be millions of dollars," Danko said. "That is determined on where you bring suit."

All the passengers' families, though, will have the option to file a suit in the United States against Boeing, the manufacturer of the disappeared 777 jet. "Usually what happens are family members who are otherwise unable to bring suit against the airline will bring suit against the manufacturer," Danko said. For example, after a flight from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, crashed, families of the victims filed suit against the U.S. companies that operated the jet and made some of its safety equipment.

But until the plane is found and more is known about the circumstances that brought it down, it would be difficult to prove that families are owed compensation because of a mechanical failure. As with so much else about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the biggest mysteries are yet to be solved.

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