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Defense staffer charged in China spy case

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

A civilian employee of the Defense Department was arrested Wednesday on espionage charges that he sold classified information and passed other sensitive documents to a spy for the Chinese government who has been convicted of compromising another Pentagon employee.

James Wilbur Fondren Jr., 62, was charged in federal court in Virginia with conspiracy to communicate classified information to an agent of a foreign government. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

Mr. Fondren, who has been suspended since February 2008 from his job as deputy director of the U.S. Pacific Command's Washington liaison office, turned himself in to federal agents Wednesday morning and was released without having to post bond, but will be on GPS monitoring.

"The allegations in this case are troubling - providing classified information to a foreign agent of the People's Republic of China is a real and serious threat to our national security," said Dana J. Boente, the acting U.S. Attorney for Virginia's eastern district.

Mr. Fondren's lawyer, Asa Hutchinson, said: "Mr. Fondren did not at any time knowingly give any classified information to the People's Republic of China."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the threat posed by insiders with access to sensitive information is real.

"The department is reliant upon the trust and confidence it places on its employees," he said. "It is a sacred trust to protect information vital to the national security of the country."

Mr. Fondren is the second Pacific Command China affairs specialist to be linked to passing classified to China.

Ronald Montaperto, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official working as a Pacific Command China specialist, pleaded guilty in 2006 to unlawful retention of classified information. In meetings with federal agents, Montaperto admitted he passed highly classified information to Chinese military intelligence, according to court documents in the case.

"China continues to be an aggressive threat," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "This is just the most recent example."

Authorities say Mr. Fondren broke the law when he passed and sold information to Tai Shen Kuo, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan who is serving more than 15 years in prison for spying.

(Corrected paragraph:) Kuo, a successful furniture salesman who lived in New Orleans, pleaded guilty last year to passing classified information to the Chinese government that he received from Gregg Bergersen, a former Defense Department employee now serving more than five years in prison.

The cases of Mr. Fondren and Bergersen are not related, but do share several similarities. Authorities say he led both Bergersen and Mr. Fondren to think the information they were providing was going to Taiwan, an ally of the U.S. And while both men apparently knew Kuo did business and kept an office in China, neither knew he was a spy for that government.

Authorities maintain that distinction is meaningless under the law, surreptitiously providing classified information to any foreign country is a crime.

According to an FBI affidavit filed in Mr. Fondren's case, he and Kuo are old friends. Mr. Fondren started a national security consulting business in 1998, two years after retiring from the Air Force, and Kuo was his only customer.

Mr. Fondren was hired by the Pentagon in 2001 and held a top secret security clearance. Authorities say he sold or passed classified information to Kuo from 2004 to 2008.

(Corrected paragraph:) According to the affidavit, Mr. Fondren included classified information in eight so-called "opinion papers" he sold to Kuo for between $350 and $800. Some of the classified information related to the visits of senior Chinese military officials to the U.S. and details of a joint exercise between the U.S. Navy and its Chinese counterparts.