Former Chicago student convicted of spying for Chinese intelligence

Former Chicago student convicted of spying for Chinese intelligence

A federal jury on Monday convicted a former Chicago graduate student of spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on scientists and engineers in the United States with valuable knowledge of aerospace technology, artificial intelligence and even aircraft carrier.

After a two-week trial, the jury found Ji Chaoqun, 31, guilty of conspiracy to act as an agent of the Chinese Ministry of State Security without informing the United States Attorney General, of acting as a spy in the United States and lying on a government form about his contacts with foreign agencies.

The jury, which deliberated about six hours over two days, acquitted Ji of two other counts of wire fraud alleging he lied to the US military when he applied to become a reservist in 2016.

Ji, who has been in custody since his arrest four years ago, kept his hands clasped on the defense table and appeared to have no reaction as he listened to the verdict on headphones through a Chinese interpreter.

The most serious count of espionage carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman did not immediately set a sentencing date.

After the verdict, Ji’s lead attorney, Damon Cheronis, said in a statement that he was “satisfied that the jury returned verdicts of not guilty on both counts of wire fraud.”

“It was a complicated case and fortunately we live in a country where a jury decides these questions,” Cheronis wrote in an email to the Tribune. “While we are obviously disappointed with the remaining counts, we respect the jury’s process and the hard work they put into deciding this case.”

Ji’s case was described in the Tribune in 2019 as symbolic of a growing area of ​​concern for US authorities: a sophisticated and wide-ranging mission by the Chinese government for spies and foreign agents to steal ideas and technology. to defense companies and contractors around the world. country.

The charges against Ji were part of a larger national security investigation that also led to the unprecedented arrest and extradition of his handler, Xu Yangjun, a senior intelligence officer with the major intelligence agency. Chinese espionage.

Xu, the first Chinese spy brought to the United States to face criminal charges, was convicted in federal court in Cincinnati last November of attempting to steal trade secrets from military contractor GE Aviation. He is expected to be sentenced later this year.

The charges against Ji alleged that he was targeted by MSS agents in China shortly before coming to Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering at IIT, a small private school just east of Chicago. Dan Ryan who had forged educational links with Chinese universities and colleges.

After returning to China during winter break, Ji was “propped and dined” by MSS managers and eventually received a top-secret contract where he swore allegiance to the agency’s cause, accepting to “dedicate the rest of my life to state security,” according to prosecutors.

A photo taken surreptitiously by Ji of the contract was later found on his cellphone, even though it was unsigned. Ji also took photos of $6,000 in cash given to him by MSS for living expenses in the United States, prosecutors said.

Five days later, Ji returned to Chicago and immediately contacted a friend who was studying aeronautics and aviation at George Washington University in Washington DC, Assistant US Attorney Barry Jonas said in his closing argument to the jury. last week.

Ji sent the friend photos of the contract and money and offered to share some of his “operational expenses” with him if he would help find leads for MSS, Jonas said.

Jonas told jurors that sending the photos to his friend was “maybe not the brightest thing” for Ji to do, but it didn’t make him any less of a spy.

“There’s no obligation that you find him to be James Bond,” Jonas said.

In the end, Ji was able to piece together background reports on eight US citizens, all of whom were born in Taiwan or China, with careers in the science and technology industry, several of whom majored in aerospace. Seven worked for US defense contractors, prosecutors said.

Ji returned the reports — which were publicly available for purchase — to his managers in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled as “mid-term review” question sets, according to Jonas.

Ji graduated from IIT in 2015 and the following year he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve as part of a program to recruit foreigners with skills considered vital to the interest national.

Prosecutors alleged that Ji concealed during his military background check that he had been in contact with intelligence agents, but the jury found him not guilty on both counts.

The jury, however, found him guilty of giving false answers on a government form asking if he had ever had contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including the MSS.

In his closing argument on Friday, Cheronis noted that Ji had never been accused of stealing government secrets, merely gathering information that anyone looking for a neighbor or a potential date could pay for on the Internet.

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He also described Ji as an unwitting pawn in a much larger international spy game, played with equal aplomb by the same US government now pointing the finger.

Cheronis said the system is designed to exploit idealistic young students like Ji, “kids who are having a hard enough time figuring out what they’re going to do with their lives.”

He pointed to the testimony of prosecution expert James Olson, the former head of counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency, who guided the jury through what Olson called “the big game” of espionage. .

Olson called it “eight-dimensional chess” and acknowledged that men like him were experts in harnessing the “dark side of human nature”.

Cheronis said Olson talks about older, more experienced players “attacking college kids like he’s talking about a fish.”

“(Ji) is actually a human being. But it’s a trophy for guys like Olson,” Cheronis said.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

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