Two Chinese residents, arrested at Los Angeles International Airport over the weekend, face charges for allegedly attempting to export sensitive thermal imaging technology to China.
Authorities arrested Zhi Yong Guo and Tah Wei Chao as they were about to board an Air China flight to Beijing early Saturday morning, after investigators found 10 of the cameras in their luggage.
Justice Department officials noted that the thermal cameras could be used for military purposes; according to the affidavit, Chao purchased three cameras last fall and arranged for them to be sent to China.
Federal agents from the Commerce Department, FBI and Customs and Border Protection have monitored the pair since last year for allegedly exporting the cameras to China without the proper licenses.
The men worked for a company, Printing Plus Graphics, in San Gabriel, Calif. After warning Chao several times that the cameras could not be moved outside the U.S. without an export license, a representative from the FLIR Systems corporation — which manufactures the devices — alerted Commerce Department officials last fall about several "red flags," according to court documents reviewed in the case.
One noted that "A print shop is not what I would consider an ordinary customer," the company representative told investigators in a September 2007 e-mail.
According to e-mails allegedly sent by Chao to FLIR Systems, Chao claimed the cameras were to be used for emergency response personnel. (The cameras can be used for firefighters to locate individuals in smoke-filled rooms.) A Sept. 10, 2007, e-mail allegedly sent by Chao stated, "It applies to varies areas, such as firefighting, medical, etc. Thanks Chao."
A month later, after the company alerted authorities, an undercover agent from the Commerce Office of Export Enforcement entered the Printing Plus Graphics office. Court records indicate the undercover agent was offered a pricing sheet to print menus and business cards.
"[The Special Agent] concluded, based on his observations, that PPG was not a manufacturing, engineering or an incorporating thermal imaging facility," according to the affidavit.
Assessments by U.S. defense, law enforcement and intelligence officials have noted that China has increased attempts to gain access to certain sensitive U.S. technologies.
The Justice Department, along with Immigration Customs Enforcement, the FBI and Defense Criminal Investigative Service, launched a counter-proliferation initiative last year to curb the transfer of sensitive technologies overseas.
Lawyers for the two men could not be reached for comment.