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Pentagon official charged in China espionage case

A Pentagon official with "top secret" security clearance has been charged with conspiracy to pass classified information to an agent of China, officials said Wednesday.

Retired air force Lieutenant Colonel James Wilbur Fondren, a deputy director of the US Pacific Command's Washington Liaison Office, became the fourth person targeted after a Chinese espionage ring was unmasked last year.

"The allegations in this case are troubling -- providing classified information to a foreign agent of the People's Republic of China is a real and serious threat to our national security," said Dana Boente, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

"The US government places considerable trust in those given access to classified information, and we are committed to prosecuting those who abuse that trust," he said.

The US government accuses China of mounting an aggressive operation to prise open its secrets, and President Barack Obama is weighing an overhaul of cyber-security after several reports of computer hacking originating in China.

The Justice Department said that Fondren, 62, start providing business consulting advice to a Taiwan-born US citizen called Tai Shen Kuo around February 1998, about two years after he retired from the US Air Force.

Fondren continued the arrangement with his friend even after becoming a civilian employee of the Pacific Command in August 2001, where he held a "top secret" clearance with a classified computer in his cubicle.

Unbeknownst to Fondren, Kuo was working under the direction of a Chinese government official, the affidavit said without identifying the official. Kuo had introduced Fondren to the official in about March 1999, it said.

The official instructed Kuo to mislead Fondren into believing that his information was destined for Taiwanese military officials, it said.

FBI investigating agent Robert Gibbs wrote that wherever Fondren thought the information was ending up, it was clear that he broke US law by "knowingly" handing secrets to "an agent or representative of a foreign government."

The 17-page affidavit said that between November 2004 and February 2008, Fondren included classified information in eight analytical reports that he sold to Kuo for between 350 and 800 dollars apiece.

The documents included a State Department cable, details about a Chinese military official's US visit, information about a joint Sino-US naval exercise, and information on US-China military meetings.

In one instance, according to Gibbs, Fondren gave Kuo a draft Defense Department report on the Chinese military and told him: "This is the report I didn't want you to talk about over the telephone.

"Let people find out I did that, it will cost me my job."

Kuo was arrested in February 2008 along with another Pentagon contact, Gregg William Bergersen, and a Chinese accomplice in New Orleans, Yu Xin Kang. When he was arrested, Kuo was staying in Fondren's Virginia home.

In May 2008, Kuo pled guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to more than 15 years in jail. Bergersen and Kang are also serving prison time.

Fondren, who has been on administrative leave since February 2008, faces a maximum five years imprisonment and a 250,000 dollar fine if convicted.

"Today's case is the result of an outstanding long-term counterespionage effort by many agents, analysts and prosecutors that has thus far yielded three convictions," said David Kris, assistant federal attorney general for national security.

"The conduct alleged in this complaint should serve as a warning to others in government who would compromise classified information and betray the trust placed in them by the American people."

Copyright 2009 AFP Asian Edition
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Publication:AFP Asian Edition
Date:May 14, 2009
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