Ex-Air War College professor with access to secrets pleads guilty in China case

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A civilian professor at the Air Force’s Air War College with a secret level security clearance pleaded guilty this week to lying to federal agents about his contacts with a government official in China.

Xiaoming Zhang, who is no longer employed at the war college on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, also hid his attempted recruitment by the Shanghai government official during interviews with the FBI and Office of Personnel Management, according to a plea agreement in the case reached Monday. Zhang, 69, was born in China and traveled there frequently for research and to meet family after joining the military college in 2003, prosecutors stated.

The prosecution is the latest case of Chinese technology-related espionage and intelligence gathering under the Justice Department’s China Initiative, a program begun during the Trump administration in a bid to staunch the flow of American know-how to Beijing. A 2018 White House report said China‘s theft of American intellectual property was estimated to have caused losses of between $250 billion to $600 billion annually.

Zhang cooperated with prosecutors in hopes of getting a reduced sentence, according to court papers. He worked as an associate professor in the Air War College’s Department of Leadership and Strategy on topics related to China and East Asia.

Prosecutors said in 2012 that Zhang became close to a Chinese official, Huang Yonggang, who worked for the Shanghai Municipal Government. Zhang met Mr. Huang about six times between December 2012 and January 2017 and exchanged 40 emails with the official between March 2013 and December 2015.

“At some point during this period, [Zhang] came to understand that Huang was using or attempting to use their relationship to gain access to sensitive information in defendant’s possession as well as to make contact with other potentially valuable individuals,” the plea agreement states.

No details on the exchanges or the information involved were disclosed in court papers. A lawyer for Zhang did not return an email seeking comment. The lead prosecutor in the case also did not return an email seeking comment.

One addition to the plea agreement remains under court seal and could describe any classified information discussed in the case.

Zhang took part in security briefings for his security clearance that included requirements to report contacts with foreign officials. The former professor failed to report the Chinese contact “even after he came to understand that the official was attempting to gather sensitive information from Zhang,” the Justice Department said in a statement on the case.

The false statements made by Zhang were an attempt to hide the relationship with Mr. Huang.

The contacts were first disclosed during a background investigation conducted by officials of the Office of Personnel Management in August 2017. The FBI then interviewed him in July 2020 when, according to prosecutors, he initially denied the relationship before later admitting to the Chinese contact.

Zhang faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Sentencing is set for March 22 in federal court in Montgomery, Alabama.

In addition to the FBI and OPM, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations and Pentagon took part in the probe.

As part of the plea deal, Zhang agreed to resign from all U.S. government and defense contractor positions.

Separately, the FBI is investigating a U.S. oceanographer, Walker Orson Smith, regarding his contacts in China as part of the so-called “Thousand Talents Program,” a Beijing bid to woo Chinese researchers studying abroad to obtain U.S. and Western technology and expertise for both its military buildup and civilian development.

Mr. Smith works at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and told Radio Free Asia his electronic devices were seized by authorities at Detroit International Airport on May 31 as part of the probe. Shanghai Jiao Tong University conducts research for the People’s Liberation Army, according to the Australian website China Defence University Tracker.

The university’s School of Naval Architecture, Ocean and Civil Engineering is the “lead unit of the High-tech Ship and Deep-Sea Development Equipment Collaborative Innovation Center, where it has contributed to assisting the PLA Navy’s transition to offshore defense operations,” the website stated.

A federal court order authorized the FBI to search his electronic devices, RFA reported.

Mr. Smith said he is not involved in work with military or commercial applications, but noted that some of his research involved restricted technology.

“I use it only in U.S. programs,” Mr. Smith was quoted as saying. “In fact, I’m very paranoid about how to even discuss those data. But the instrument itself has been restricted for many years.”

“I’m dismayed that my own government is harassing — and I consider it illegally harassing — individuals for no cause,” he added.

The court order disclosed that Mr. Smith and several other unidentified colleagues are the target of a federal investigation into the theft of trade secrets, false statements and wire fraud as part of the Thousand Talents Program, RFA reported. The U.S. government-funded radio reported that a U.S. attorney’s application for a search warrant identified Shanghai Jiao Tong University as having “links to China‘s People’s Liberation Army.”

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