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Top NATO scientist caught spying for China, gets 3 years prison

NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 27, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando/Released)
March 31, 2021

Tarmo Kõuts, a renowned Estonian marine scientist who works with NATO and held a security clearance, was sentenced to three years in prison after being charged with spying for China, according to a March 19 report.

Aleksander Toots, the deputy director of Estonia’s KAPO counterintelligence service, told The Daily Beast, that Kõuts, 57, was recruited by China’s Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission in 2018.

According to Estonia’s ERR public broadcaster, Kõuts was a member of the scientific committee of the Estonian Ministry of Defense and, from 2006 to 2012, worked as a member of the scientific committee of NATO’s Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation, previously known as the NATO Undersea Research Center. Kõuts was reportedly involved in submarine research during his work for NATO and the Ministry of Defense.

Toots said Kõuts was confined over his spying efforts for China in which he gave them observations and experiences about his work in sensitive settings. He did not provide any confidential military information, however. Chinese operatives reportedly gave Kõuts cash payments and paid for trips to various Asian countries with luxury accommodations and fine dining at Michelin star restaurants.

Kõuts reportedly earned approximately €17,000 (about $20,000) in payments for his spying, which the Estonian government has since confiscated.

Kõuts’ case is the latest in a series of western security officials prosecuted for selling information to China.

In 2019, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Chinese intelligence services. Lee reportedly devised a document on his computer on May 26, 2010, that detailed specific locations where CIA officers were, as well as the precise location and time frame of a sensitive CIA operation, which was all secret level classified information. He then transferred the sensitive information to a thumb drive to give to China.

In August 2020, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, a 15-year agent of the CIA, was arrested and charged with passing along “highly classified national defense information” to five members of the Chinese Ministry of State Security. Ma reportedly passed along information that included the identities of CIA officers and human assets, information about the CIA’s internal organization and means of CIA communications.

On Wednesday, The Daily Beast reported another official from a NATO country was caught by Italian military police trying to hand off classified documents to a Russian spy. The police caught the Italian navy officer, Walter Biot, in a parking garage with a dossier of Italian state secrets and classified NATO documents. The Russian spy in question reportedly had €5,000 ($5,863) in cash to swap for documents.