Thirteen people, including members of China’s security and intelligence services, have been charged with trying to recruit professors and others in the United States to act as agents for their country, federal authorities in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC announced.
Tales of international intrigue include allegations that the defendants plotted to steal documents from a federal prosecutor's office to subvert a criminal investigation into a major Chinese company.
Some of them are also charged in a spy-versus-spy encounter involving a $41,000 bribe in Bitcoin paid to an American who was actually a double agent working for the FBI, the Justice Department said.
Four Chinese nationals in New Jersey "engaged in a wide-ranging and systematic effort to target and recruit individuals to act on behalf of the People's Republic of China," U.S. Attorney for NJ Philip R. Sellinger and National Security Division Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen jointly announced on Monday, Oct. 24
The operation included "requests to provide information, materials, equipment, and assistance to the Chinese government in ways that would further China’s intelligence objectives," they said.
Three of the four are officers with China’s civilian intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security intelligence (MSS).
Sellinger and Olsen said these people "used a purported academic institute at Ocean University of China – referred to as the Institute for International Studies (IIS) – as cover for their clandestine intelligence activities."
The defendants "targeted professors at American universities and others in the United States with access to sensitive information and equipment...to act on behalf of, and as agents of, the Chinese government," they said.
In return, they promised paid vacations to China, documents on file in U.S. District Court in Newark allege.
Among the targets was a former federal law enforcement officer and state homeland security official who operated as a double agent, the documents show.
On all-expense-paid trips to China, the defendants asked him for "sensitive fingerprint technology, information, and assistance with stopping planned protests along the 2008 Olympic Games torch route in the United States, which the conspirators expressed would be 'embarrassing' to China," Sellinger said.
They made other requests, as well, he said, which the American operative immediately brought to the authorities.
The espionage also included efforts to torpedo a criminal investigation of Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications giant, by stealing documents and other information from the federal prosecutors working the case, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in Washington, D.C.
Seven other Chinese nationals were charged in federal court in Brooklyn last week with participating in a scheme to force the repatriation of a Chinese national living in the United States.
Two more from the Long Island town of Roslyn also were charged on Monday.
Only two of the 13 total defendants are in custody, federal authorities confirmed. The other 11 were being sought.
The defendants in the New Jersey case were identified as Wang Lin, 59, Bi Hongwei, age unknown, Dong Ting, also known as Chelsea Dong, 40, and Wang Qiang, 55.
They're formally charged in an indictment returned by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Newark with "engaging in a broad-based and systematic campaign to identify and enlist people to represent China in the United States from 2008 to 2018."
One of the primary defendants in New York, Quanzhong An, is the majority owner of a Queens hotel, federal authorities added.
He's accused of acting on the orders of China’s Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection to monitor, harass, and coerce a U.S. resident to return to China in an international repatriation effort known as “Operation Fox Hunt."
“As these cases demonstrate, the government of China sought to interfere with the rights and freedoms of individuals in the United States and to undermine our judicial system that protects those rights," said Garland, the nation's top federal prosecutor. "They did not succeed."
For his part, Sellinger said Monday that the prosecutions "drive home the fact that the intelligence risk posed by MSS continues to be real, ever-present, and significant.
"Everyone in the United States – and especially those in academic, business, military, or government positions that have access to sensitive information or equipment – should take heed of the risk that the MSS poses to our democracy and way of life,” Sellinger said.
“These defendants cloaked themselves and their motives in order to get access to our higher learning institutions and recruit others to betray this nation," FBI Special Agent in Charge James Dennehy added. "All intended to give China a leg up.
"The FBI would never let that happen," Dennehy emphasized. "The safety of the citizens of the United States and the security of our nation are our top priorities.
"When foreign adversaries threaten either of those two things – whether on our soil or from another country; whether in-person or through cyber channels – we will use every resource at our disposal to uncover their espionage, thwart their malign influence, and bring them to justice.”
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