By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
They would meet every few months at restaurants in Northern Virginia, or sometimes take in a show in Las Vegas. Once, the Defense Department official emerged with a half-inch stack of hundred-dollar bills stuffed in his shirt pocket, federal officials said yesterday. His Chinese contact reported back to a handler in Beijing.
But FBI agents were tracking the pair, and they moved in yesterday and arrested both men in a case that federal officials said highlights China's increasingly aggressive efforts to obtain U.S. military and trade secrets. The FBI raids came hours before the Defense official, Gregg W. Bergersen, and the Chinese businessman, Tai Shen Kuo, had reservations to meet again at an Alexandria restaurant.
Both are charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with espionage, one of two cases announced yesterday by the Justice Department that involve alleged Chinese plans to infiltrate U.S. intelligence or companies. In California, a former Boeing engineer was accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of secret company documents about the space shuttle and military programs.
The case unfolding outside the nation's capital is not as significant as that of Aldrich H. Ames or Robert P. Hanssen, spies who were also prosecuted at the Alexandria federal courthouse and who did incalculable damage to national security, officials said yesterday. The government is still trying to figure out how much damage Bergersen, who lives in Fairfax County, may have caused with the information he is accused of giving Kuo, which mostly concerned U.S. military sales to Taiwan.
Bergersen's wife, Ofelia, said outside the federal courthouse after a brief hearing yesterday that her husband is "absolutely innocent." A spokesman for the Arlington County-based Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a Defense agency where Bergersen is a weapons policy analyst, would not comment.
If convicted, Bergersen faces up to 10 years in prison. Kuo and a third person charged, Yu Xin Kang, 33, of New Orleans, face up to life in prison. The former Boeing engineer charged in California, Dongfan "Greg" Chung, 72, faces more than 100 years in prison. Federal officials said many of the documents he is accused of stealing were found in his home and never made it to China.
Kuo also cultivated relationships with other U.S. government officials, according to court documents, and federal law enforcement sources said more people might be charged. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
Court documents unsealed yesterday in the Alexandria case describe what Justice Department official Kenneth L. Wainstein yesterday called "the classic espionage network, complete with traditional elements of spy trade craft, including foreign handlers, payoffs . . . couriers and a compromised government employee."
FBI agents followed Bergersen, 51, and Kuo, 58, as the pair met every couple of months for the past two years at restaurants in Alexandria and Loudoun County and also at places in Charleston, S.C., and Las Vegas, according to court records. The agents taped their calls, monitored their e-mail and videotaped them driving in a rental car to Dulles International Airport.
It was on that video that the agents said they saw Kuo, of New Orleans, stick the stack of cash in Bergersen's shirt pocket, court documents say. The outer bill was a $100 note.
Bergersen was then recorded, according to court documents, as telling Kuo: "Now, the other information I gave you, um, I'm very, very, very reticent to let you have it, because it's all classified . . . but I, I will let you see it . . . and you can take all the notes you want."
"I appreciate it. I appreciate it," Kuo said.
"But I, I, if it ever fell into the wrong hands, and I know it's not going to, but if it ever . . . then I would be fired for sure. I'd go to jail . . . because I violated all the rules."
What Bergersen then let Kuo copy, federal officials said, was a classified list of projected U.S. military sales to Taiwan for the next five years. Kuo then discussed the list in an e-mail to his contact in Beijing, identified in documents as "People's Republic of China Official A," and he later took the list to Beijing.
The information would be of great interest to the Chinese government, according to federal officials and experts on China, because China and Taiwan are adversaries, with China insisting that Taiwan reunite with the mainland. The United States has a long-standing "one China" policy, under which it maintains diplomatic relations only with China.
Taken together, the cases show that China, with its growing military might, is becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to steal U.S. secrets, Justice officials said. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for Justice's national security division, said the overall frequency of espionage, primarily from China and Russia, is approaching the level of activity seen during the Cold War era. The Chinese activity has triggered a major crackdown by Justice.
Neighbors of Bergersen's said the agents, toting automatic weapons, arrived about 5:30 a.m. yesterday and spent about five hours hauling computers and other equipment from the house. They approached Bergersen as he was leaving the house to go exercise, his wife said.
Marcia Shell, a neighbor who witnessed the raid, said, "It was like watching '24' live."
Staff reporters Dan Eggen and Mark Berman in Washington and Edward Cody in Changzhi contributed to this report.