By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
A Defense Department official has been charged in an espionage conspiracy with providing classified information to a Chinese government agent, including a report on Chinese military power and details about a joint U.S.-Chinese naval exercise, prosecutors announced yesterday.
James W. Fondren Jr., 62, worked at the Pentagon and is deputy director for the Washington Liaison Office of the U.S. Pacific Command. He was charged in a criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with conspiracy to communicate classified information to a foreign agent.
Fondren is the second Pentagon official charged in an espionage ring that provided highly sensitive military information to China, the latest example of what the government says are China's increasingly aggressive efforts to obtain U.S. military and trade secrets. The activity has triggered a federal crackdown, with numerous criminal investigations of Chinese espionage in recent years and 20 new Justice Department counter-proliferation task forces across the country.
Fondren, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, stood erect and silent with his hands at his sides as he appeared briefly in federal court in Alexandria. A judge ordered him released pending trial, with electronic monitoring to track his whereabouts. Fondren has been on paid administrative leave since February 2008.
Asa Hutchinson, an attorney for Fondren, said in an interview that he would plead not guilty and that he "did not knowingly provide any classified information to any agent of the People's Republic of China."
Law enforcement officials said the case is not nearly as significant as those involving Aldrich H. Ames or Robert P. Hanssen, spies who were also prosecuted at the Alexandria courthouse and who did major harm to national security. Fondren faces up to five years in prison if convicted -- a relatively light potential sentence -- and prosecutors did not seek his detention before trial.
But officials emphasized that any espionage case will get high-level attention, especially one involving a potential U.S. military rival such as China. "Obviously, it's a pretty serious spy ring when you're able to get two DOD officials to provide classified information to China," said one federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Acting U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente said the allegations are "a real and serious threat to our national security. The U.S. government places considerable trust in those given access to classified information, and we are committed to prosecuting those who abuse that trust."
Spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon "is reliant on the trust and confidence it places in its employees. It's a sacred trust to protect information vital to the national security of the country."
A defense official said the case shows "that foreign entities are trying to obtain information through our personnel, which is why we have to be so vigilant."
The charges against Fondren follow the guilty plea last year of Gregg W. Bergersen, a former weapons systems policy analyst at the Arlington-based Defense Security Cooperation Agency. He admitted that he provided classified information on projected U.S. military sales to Taiwan to Tai Shen Kuo, a New Orleans businessman. Bergersen was sentenced to 57 months in prison.
Kuo also pleaded guilty and admitted that he gave the Chinese government information he obtained from Bergersen.
Kuo, who has been interviewed extensively by the FBI, is also at the center of the Fondren case. On the day of his arrest last year, Kuo was staying at Fondren's Virginia home, and court documents said he carried out separate schemes to obtain information from Fondren and Bergersen and pass it to his Chinese government contact.
The relationship between Kuo and Fondren dates to at least 1998, when Fondren, who had retired from the Air Force two years earlier, began providing consulting services from his Annandale home. His sole client was Kuo, who was working under the direction of the Chinese government official, according to court documents.
After becoming a civilian employee at the Pentagon in 2001, Fondren provided Kuo a variety of classified Defense Department material, selling some of it to Kuo for up to $800 per item, prosecutors said. The data included classified information about the joint naval exercise, the draft report on the Chinese military, and U.S. assessments of a Chinese military official's visit to the United States.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.