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The spies among us: More Chinese agents digging up secrets in Florida

Chinese police state spies are everywhere. (Matt/Flickr)
January 18, 2020

They’ve been caught taking photos of military installations, arrested trespassing at Mar-a-Lago, convicted of illegally exporting critical technology, and sentenced for working at federal research institutions while still on their home countries’ payroll. National security officials say it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Florida has become an increasingly attractive destination in the shadowy war of spies between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, given that the Sunshine State is home to research institutions, defense installations, universities and, yes, even President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.

And the pace of Chinese spying in Florida appears to be quickening, according to a review of federal court filings, along with conversations with espionage experts, state and national politicians, and national security officials. In just the past two years, at least nine Chinese nationals were detained in Florida while engaging or possibly engaging in espionage-related activities. Five of those arrests happened in just the past few months.

“Recent incidents remind us that concerns about Chinese espionage are not hysteria,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “China poses a serious and long-term challenge to the United States that requires an enduring comprehensive response.”

Experts and defense officials have long warned of a broad and comprehensive intelligence gathering operation carried out across the United States by or at the behest of Chinese security services.

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At first glance, Florida appears to be just one front in a wider struggle. Of the 304 federal Chinese espionage prosecutions conducted in the past 30 years, only 11 occurred in the state, according to an independent database maintained by researchers at Penn State.

A rich history of spies

Florida has a long history of spy craft, particularly high-profile cases in South Florida.

The University of Miami’s South Campus was once the home of a massive CIA outpost.

For decades, Cuban-exile paramilitary groups waged a violent and bitter covert campaign against the Castro regime from the shores of Biscayne Bay, bombing airliners and even making attempts against the life of Fidel.

In the late 1990s, five intelligence operatives from that Caribbean island’s communist government were arrested in Miami and convicted of espionage. And according to the Miami Herald, Cuban operatives may have been probing the security at Miami International Airport as recently as last spring.

But the spies from the Middle Kingdom aren’t waging your grandfather’s Cold War cloak-and-dagger conflict.

“Chinese espionage is vastly different,” said Nicholas Eftimiades, a retired senior intelligence officer and the author of the book “Chinese Intelligence Operations.”

Chinese espionage operations — unlike those of Cuba or the former USSR — aren’t always carried out by professionally trained spies, and are just as often focused on economic targets as on military targets, Eftimiades said.

China’s “approach to intelligence gathering employs both amateurs and intelligence officers to support the nation,” he said.

Eftimiades maintains an independent database of all Chinese nationals prosecuted for espionage around the globe for the past 30 years as part of his research.

His data shows that Chinese intelligence objectives seem to be set by high-level brass, and that they closely align to the countries’ stated development goals, meaning that Chinese spies often go after technology that their leaders believe will help expand an economic sector they have expressed interested in developing.

Stealing trade secrets

A review of federal anti-espionage prosecutions carried out by the Justice Department against Chinese nationals last year shows that the majority of cases hinged on technology theft or the purloining of trade secrets, as agents from China were accused of attempting to steal everything from autonomous vehicle technology from Apple to live biological samples from cancer-research centers.

And Florida increasingly has been in the crosshairs.

“It’s a target-rich environment,” says Chris Sprowls, the Speaker-designate of the Florida House of representatives, of Florida’s industrial and research infrastructure.

Amin Yu, of Orlando, was working part-time at an unnamed university in Orlando when authorities caught up with her. A federal judge sentenced her to 21 months in prison in September 2016 for exporting “systems and components for marine submersible vehicles.” Basically, Yu was shipping submarine parts to China.

The Department of Justice said her co-conspirators would use what she obtained “in the development of marine submersible vehicles, including unmanned underwater vehicles, remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles.”

A federal sentencing memo said Yu was a graduate of Harbin Engineering University, a school with “historical and modern relationship with aspects of the Chinese Navy,” and that she maintained a close correspondence with an unindicted co-conspirator affiliated with the school.

Yu pleaded guilty to working as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, a charge traditionally reserved for espionage prosecutions. But David Haas, Yu’s defense attorney, said the case wasn’t about espionage. “At no point did the government ever call my client a spy,” he said.

There are concerns about Chinese espionage at Florida’s research institutions.

Chunzai Wang, an oceanographer employed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research center on Virginia Key, also was employed by a Chinese agency at the same time. That’s a violation of federal law.

Wang was sentenced to time served in February 2018 for being involved “in China’s 973 Program, which mobilizes scientific talents to strengthen basic research in line with national strategic targets of the People’s Republic of China,” according to the Justice Department.

Wang’s attorney could not be reached for comment, but national security officials point to his case as one that highlights the worrying influence of China’s espionage services in American academic and research circles.

It’s an influence that the National Institute of Health, which funds medical research, is concerned about. In August 2018, the health institute put out a letter warning that “foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers.”

And in December, Sen. Rick Scott sent a letter to the presidents of universities in Florida warning that China was “stealing our information to ultimately use against us,” and asking the leaders for information about links between academic researchers and China.

In Florida, the letters seemed to have an effect.

Last month, the CEO and president of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa resigned after an internal review revealed that they and four other researchers were collaborating with China’s “1000 talents program,” a suspected espionage program, according to the FBI.

There have been no accusations of espionage in that case, though the resignations did come about as a result of efforts by the National Institute of Health to stamp out foreign attempts to steal American medical research.

And on Jan. 13, the Tampa Bay Times reported that four University of Florida faculty had left that school as a result of that institution’s audit of its researchers ties with the people’s republic of China.

The worries about Chinese espionage in academic and research settings also has prompted the Florida Legislature to create a committee focused on ferreting out the phenomenon, the first of its kind for any state.

The concern is that researchers with undisclosed ties to China may be passing that country valuable intellectual property.

“We don’t want to be in a position where the Florida taxpayer is inadvertently subsidizing research and development for a foreign country,” Sprowls, the Speaker-designate of the Florida House and the chair of the bipartisan committee, told the Sun Sentinel.

“The more I learn,” said Sprowl’s of Chinese espionage activity in Florida research and academic institutions, “the more horrific it gets.”

On Tuesday, Scott released a follow-up statement to his December letter, saying, “I’m still waiting to hear from many universities in Florida. Everyone needs to understand this risk.”

Raising security concerns

David Kris is the former head of the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, which handles espionage prosecutions. He sees something larger afoot from all the spy work. “These latest developments are part of this larger pattern,” said Kris, now a principal at Culper Partners, a consulting firm.

“And of course, the Chinese efforts that we discover and block are only part of the story — there are surely many such efforts that we may never discover.”

Even if the majority of China’s espionage aims may be focused on stealing tech and research, it doesn’t mean they don’t engage in real spy stuff carried out by assets or agents of the People’s Liberation Army or China’s Ministry of State Security, and focusing on more traditional military or defense targets.

In Jacksonville, Fan Yang, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, his wife and two Chinese nationals were indicted in November for allegedly attempting to export seven “military style inflatable boats” and eight “military outboard motors” to China without proper authorization, according to the Department of Justice.

Fan Yang held a top-secret military clearance and was a trained flight officer on submarine hunting aircraft, according to federal court documents.

One of the indicted Chinese nationals had received “tactical weapons training by hiring U.S.-based firearms and tactical instructors with prior military experience, including some with specialized tactical training from their respective experiences serving as Special Forces operators,” according to the criminal complaint.

Yet even when it comes to traditional espionage targets, the Chinese intelligence services often employ rather unorthodox methods.

Lyuyao Liao, a 27-year-old Chinese national enrolled in a law program at Washington University in St. Louis, was arrested in Key West on Dec. 26 on the charge of trespassing onto the Truman Annex of Naval Air Station, Key West.

Liao claims to have entered into the secure area out of a desire to take photos of the sunrise, according to federal court documents. But he has been charged with taking photos of U.S. military installations after an image of the Truman Annex was found on his camera.

“My client never intended to trespass,” said Daniel Lawrence Rashbaum, Liao’s attorney. “He wanted to take pictures of the sunrise, like many other tourists in Key West, and he will be vindicated at trial.”

Three other Chinese nationals were accused of trespassing and photographing parts of Naval Air Station, Key West in just the past year and a half. Two were nabbed barely a fortnight after Liao was arrested. One, Zhao Qianli, was sentenced to one year in prison in February 2019 after taking photos of antennae equipment at the base.

“This is not professional intelligence work,” Eftimiades said.

Current and former American security officials also think the pattern of intrusions at Key West fits into China’s intelligence gathering practices.

“As a general matter, China’s intelligence collection playbook has long included gathering information on sensitive American facilities at home and abroad. Whether the individuals recently arrested in Key West were engaged in such activity is a matter for the FBI and Justice Department to determine,” says Dean Boyd, communications executive for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The incursions also drew concern from Rubio, the state’s senior senator. “I have discussed the most recent incident with the relevant counterintelligence officials,” he said in a written statement. “Florida is home to more than 20 military installations, and it’s important we ensure that all areas sensitive to national security are protected.”

Mar-a-Lago is another location that has increasingly become the focus of potential Chinese intelligence gathering, as the president’s presence there makes it a plum target.

“The ultimate goal [of any intelligence service] is to get someone as close to the president or the national security team as they can,” explains Ray Batvinis, a retired FBI supervisory special agent.

Yujing Zhang, a Chinese businesswoman, was sentenced to time served in November after being convicted of lying to the Secret Service about wandering the grounds of Mar-a-Lago.

Zhang, who represented herself at trial, was apprehended with several electronic devices in her purse, one of which was an iPhone in a Faraday cage, an anti-tracking device often used by intelligence professionals.

A second Chinese national was recently arrested at Mar-a-Lago. But is unclear if the Dec. 18 arrest of Lu Jing, a Chinese national, is being investigated by the Secret Service as a possible instance of espionage. Jing was picked up by the Palm Beach Police Department on charges of loitering and resisting an officer without violence after attempting to enter the resort that night.

According to a probable cause affidavit filed in Palm Beach Circuit Court, Jing entered Mar-a-Lago through a service entrance after being turned away from the door. Surveillance footage described in the affidavit shows Jing reached about 100 yards into the compound, taking photos as she went, before being waylaid by security.

The Secret Service and representatives of the People’s Republic of China at their U.S. embassy could not be reached for comment.

“I’ve been harping on this issue for the past 30 years,” Eftimiades said of China’s unorthodox intelligence gathering practices. “It hasn’t filtered through to the U.S. government, which is not structured to contend with Chinese espionage as it is practiced.”

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© 2020 the Sun Sentinel