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Air War College professor hid ties to Chinese official who sought US secrets

The Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. (U.S. Air Force photo/Released)
October 26, 2021

Xiaoming Zhang, a civilian professor at the Air War College on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. pleaded guilty to hiding ties to a Chinese official who sought to exploit the professor’s ties to the college to gain access to sensitive information.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Zhang’s guilty plea on charges of making false statements to a federal agent about his ties with a Chinese government official. He now faces up to five years in prison for the false statements.

Zhang, 69, is a naturalized U.S. citizen of Chinese descent who began teaching at the Air War College (AWC) in July 2003. According to the DOJ, Zhang would regularly travel to China for both work-related and research purposes, as well as to visit family.

AWC is an advanced postgraduate program that serves as the senior professional military education (PME) school for the U.S. Air Force. The college “prepares senior officers to lead at the strategic level across the range of military operations, in joint, interagency, and multinational environments.” Admission is restricted to those in military service and select federal government employees and international research fellows.

Beginning at some point in 2012, the DOJ said Zhang developed a relationship with a known official of the Shanghai Municipal Government. Over an approximately four-year period, from December of 2012 to January of 2017, Zhang met in-person with the Chinese official on approximately six occasions and exchanged about 40 email communications.

According to the DOJ, Zhang became aware that the Chinese official was attempting to use their relationship to gain access to sensitive information in his possession and have Zhang act as an intermediary to establish contacts with other potentially valuable individuals.

Through his employment with AWC, Zhang held a “secret” security clearance and had to attend annual security training that informed him of his requirement to report suspicious foreign contacts and relationships with foreign government officials, among other briefings about reporting requirements for his security clearance.

Despite his regular training on the matter, Zhang did not disclose his relationship with the Chinese official even as he came to realize the official was trying to gain sensitive information from him.

According to his plea agreement, Zhang admitted to making multiple false or misleading statements about his ties with the Chinese official. The DOJ said Zhang specifically denied knowing the Chinese official when questioned in August of 2017 by investigators from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who was verifying his continued eligibility for a security clearance.

The DOJ said Zhang made more false statements to investigators in July 2020 “but eventually admitted to meeting with the official in China on numerous occasions and to being untruthful concerning that information.” Zhang also admitted to concealing the relationship because he knew that it was improper.

With his plea agreement, Zhang faces a maximum of up to five years in prison for making false statements to federal agents. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled in his case.

The FBI investigated the case, with assistance from the Department of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), and the Department of Defense.