An international plot to provide China with highly classified U.S. military technology has been foiled, U.S. federal agents said.
Two Taiwanese nationals were arrested after they told American undercover agents they were working for "associates" in the Chinese intelligence community and wanted to buy a surveillance drone and stealth technology related to the U.S.'s F-22 Raptor fighter jet, the FBI said in court documents released today.
The plot was uncovered during a previous investigation into the pair's alleged involvement in a multi-million dollar counterfeit goods smuggling scheme and crystal methamphetamine operation. The pair, 45-year-old Hui Sheng Shen, also known as "Charlie," and 41-year-old Huan Ling Chang, also known as "Alice," have been charged with violating the Arms Export Control Act along with related drug charges and could face life in prison.
"The charges... illustrate starkly why we do this work, and what is at stake when the security of our ports is breached for any reason," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said. "National security isn't an a la carte enterprise. The same conduits that bring knockoff sneakers flood our communities with illegal drugs and establish dangerous criminal relationships."
According to the FBI's account, a drug smuggling middleman in Hong Kong unknowingly led undercover agents to Shen and Chang who apparently acted in the U.S. on behalf of a larger drug syndicate. In the summer of 2011, the pair discussed drug smuggling operations with the undercover agents but it wasn't until September of that year that they brought up the drones, the E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft, which they called the "big toy," and the F-22 stealth technology.
At a meeting held in Las Vegas, an undercover agent told Shen he "would prefer not to make money on something that would hurt the United States," the FBI said.
Shen replied, "I think that all items would hurt America."
When the agents tried to learn who exactly Shen and Chang worked for, Chang began to say they had "special status" and could not travel to countries like the U.S. and the U.K., but Shen interrupted and said, "They are spies."
The undercover operation came to a close in February 2012 when FBI agents met with Shen and Chang to "finalize" a major drug deal and allow the pair to take pictures of some sensitive U.S. military technology.
"The pair planned to avoid law enforcement detection by taking photographs, deleting those photographs, and bringing the memory cards back to China, where a contact had the ability to recover deleted items," the FBI said in the criminal complaint. "The defendants took the photos, but FBI agents were there to arrest them before the photos could be deleted."
Previously, unknown hackers believed to be based in China were blamed for stealing secrets of America's other next generation stealth fighter, the F-35, in what America's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, called the "egregious pilfering of intellectual capital and property," according to a February report by Aviation Week.
"China has been very active in attempting to obtain restricted American technology, including the kinds of goods that we see in today's charges but also corporate secrets and classified information," Fishman said.