A Chinese citizen was arrested Tuesday on charges that he helped China in an effort to recruit engineers and scientists at U.S. defense contractors for possible espionage.
In a 17-page criminal complaint dated Sept. 21, federal prosecutors charged Ji Chaoquan, 27, with one count of knowingly acting as the agent of a foreign power.
The Associated Press writes, "Ji made an initial appearance in federal court in downtown Chicago, looking tired and fidgeting as he stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason. Ji huddled with a Chinese-language interpreter for much of the 15-minute hearing. But when the judge asked if he understood his rights, Ji lifted his head and said in English, 'I understand.'"
Ji, who was living in Chicago, allegedly worked at the direction of a high-level intelligence officer within the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, a provincial department of China's Ministry of State Security. Ji was "tasked with providing the intelligence officer with biographical information on eight individuals for possible recruitment by the JSSD," according to a Department of Justice statement.
The criminal complaint says Ji first arrived in the U.S. in 2013 on a non-immigrant student visa to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, earning a master's in electrical engineering in 2015.
The following year, Ji enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program that authorizes the recruitment of legal aliens deemed to have skills vital to the national interest.
In the process of applying for MAVNI, Ji submitted a security clearance form on which he answered "no" to a question about contact with foreign governments or representatives, the complaint said. Later, in an interview with a U.S. Army officer, Ji also failed to disclose his contact with the Chinese intelligence officer.
Security concerns led to the suspension of MAVNI later in 2016. The Army then began discharging personnel recruited under the program, but later said it had halted that process pending a review of the program. However, a New York Times article published earlier this month suggests the Army is still trying to expel those recruited under MAVNI.
According to the complaint, a search warrant executed in October of last year uncovered email and SMS messages exchanged between Ji and the intelligence officer.
In April and May of this year, Ji met with someone who was, unbeknownst to him, an undercover FBI agent. In the May meeting, Ji revealed that he was first introduced to the intelligence officer in question during a recruitment fair while he was in school in China.
Ji allegedly passed along background information on eight individuals – all naturalized U.S. citizens born in Taiwan or China who were living in the U.S.
"All eight individuals either currently worked in or were recently retired from a career in the science and technology industry, including several individuals specializing in aerospace fields," the complaint reads. It adds, "at least seven of the eight individuals worked for, or had recently retired from, cleared U.S. defense contractors."
It was not clear whether any of the eight were subsequently recruited by Chinese intelligence.
Speaking at the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Shoba Pillay said Ji faces up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted.