A Navy officer has spent eight months in the brig as a captive of U.S. counterintelligence agents, but to hear officials tell the spy tale, they know few details about what he provided to China’s communist regime or Taiwan’s government.
To be sure, Lt. Cmdr. Edward Chieh-Liang Lin knows a lot about the Navy’s spying on China. He was a naval flight officer for long-distance patrol aircraft that suck up communications as well as track and take reconnaissance photographs and video of Beijing’s aggressive military operations in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
“Someone like Cmdr. Lin would have detailed knowledge of not only the technical capabilities of the aircraft, but how the aircraft is employed to accomplish its mission and what the U.S. knows about the signatures of submarines and ships used by other countries,” said Dakota Wood, a former Marine Corps officer and war planner who is now at The Heritage Foundation.
“If such information was passed to such a country like China, it would enable them to alter their methods and equipment in ways to defeat U.S. surveillance techniques and capabilities, thus making their own operations more effective and gaining an advantage in time of war,” Mr. Wood said.
Cmdr. Lin, a Taiwan-born naturalized U.S. citizen, quickly rose from enlisted sailor to commissioned officer three years after enlisting. By 2004, he was assigned to patrol aircraft at Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 at Whidbey Island, Washington, working aboard EP-3E Aries II aircraft. Its electronics specialize in reaching deep inside a targeted country to intercept what is called signals intelligence — in other words, enemy chatter. The planes also jam air defense radars and can attack submarines.
At the time of his arrest, as he tried to board a flight for mainland China, Cmdr. Lin was assigned to the Special Projects Patrol Squadron at Kaneohe, Hawaii. The unit flies P-3 Orion and the new P-8 Poseidon aircraft. They differ from the EP-3 family in that they specialize in reconnaissance, such as tracking China’s militaristic island building and the movements of its fleet above and below the water’s surface.
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The “special projects” moniker is recognition that the squadron is tasked with delivering intelligence to Washington, all the way up to President Obama. The planes also feed imagery to U.S. Pacific Command, whose main task in the administration’s “pivot” to Asia is to keep China from dominating the Asian theater.
But exactly what Cmdr. Lin told his Taiwanese middleman is unclear, according to one U.S. official, who answered “no” when asked whether the officer is providing details to FBI and Navy investigators. The source said authorities are certain that Cmdr. Lin conveyed information classified as “secret” by way of verbal briefings as opposed to downloaded documents.
“He gave the information to someone in Taiwan,” the official said. “Did it make it anywhere? That’s what we’re in the process of trying to figure out. That’s what we’re going to have to prove if it goes to trial.”
Cmdr. Lin went through a pretrial hearing in Norfolk, Virginia, on April. 8, eight months after he was first secretly incarcerated in the Naval Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Virginia.
His fate now rests with a recommendation from a military hearing officer to Adm. Phil Davidson, a career surface ship officer and commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, who will make the final decision.
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As a 10-year flight officer, Cmdr. Lin knows specifically what the U.S. targets in China and how. He also knows the planes’ technology suite, both its capabilities and its limits.
Said Mr. Wood: “Simply put, you don’t want a competitor to know what you know about him, and you don’t want him to know details about your own capabilities.”
A U.S. official told The Washington Times that the military’s big worry is that Cmdr. Lin, in a series of debriefings, described what exactly the P-3 and EP-3E can do. How far inside a country can its sensors reach? What communication nodes can it penetrate?
“That [P-3] aircraft has a sophisticated reconnaissance and photographic equipment, and they provide information that goes to the national level to help make decisions and then thereafter to help with operations,” the U.S. official said. “Certainly, the missions are sensitive, and he understands the capability of the aircraft and could possibly have shared those with someone else.”
Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland, describes the EP-3E Aries II: “The EP-3 aircraft in the Navy’s inventory provide fleet and theater commanders worldwide with near real-time tactical SIGINT [intercepts] and full motion video intelligence. With sensitive receivers and high-gain dish antennas, the EP-3E exploits a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within targeted territory. The crew fuses the collected intelligence along with off-board data and disseminates the collaborated information for direct threat warning, indications and warnings, information dominance, battle space situational awareness, suppression of enemy air defenses, destruction of enemy air-defense, anti-air warfare and anti-submarine warfare applications.”
The EP-3 is so intrusive that China’s communist government would be motivated to find out all it can about how it hunts submarines and eavesdrops. In April 2001, Beijing’s annoyance resulted in a collision between a J-8 intercepting jet fighter and an EP-3E about 100 miles from a Chinese military base. The J-8 crashed into the sea. The Navy crew members managed to steer and land their damaged plane on Hainan Island.
Before Cmdr. Lin’s alleged spying, it is the last known time that Chinese officials had some type of access to EP-3E crew members, who had worked furiously to destroy their equipment before being forced off the plane at gunpoint.
“Any of our potential competitors don’t like it, whether it’s the Chinese or whether it’s the Russians,” said the U.S. official. “It fills a need and capability for us.”
A number of charges
The Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Wood said that, as China’s military and economic powers grow, Beijing views the South China Sea as its launching point to sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea.
The U.S. sees its role as ensuring those international lanes remain open to free commerce.
“China has been aggressive in expanding its naval activities in that area, and P-3s have made it possible for the U.S. to monitor what the Chinese have been doing,” said Mr. Wood, a former planner at U.S. Central Command.
The Navy filed a list of charges against Cmdr. Lin. He faces four charges of committing espionage by communicating secret “information relating to national defense to a representative of a foreign government.” That representative is said to be a Taiwanese official.
He also stands accused of three charges of providing false statements by lying about his whereabouts while on leave “rather than the actual foreign destination.”
The officer faces five charges of communicating defense information to “a person not entitled to receive said information.” That person is said to be Taiwanese. Taiwan’s government last week denied any knowledge of Cmdr. Lin.
The official charging document does not say exactly what information was compromised. The Navy released no details on the April 8 hearing because the information discussed is classified.
The Navy initially did not release Cmdr. Lin’s identity, which was first reported by U.S. Naval Institute News.
Newsweek reported that Cmdr. Lin collected a wide range of endorsers on his LinkedIn page, including people in U.S. intelligence and residents of China and Taiwan.
Cmdr. Lin, 39, immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. He enlisted in 1999, says a copy of his personnel chronology obtained by The Times.
He underwent nuclear power training in Charleston, South Carolina, then in 2002 enrolled in Officer Candidate School. He gained a commission and then attended naval aviation school. He was instructed at several schools on flight operations before joining the squadron at Whidbey Island in 2004. He worked in the Pentagon on the staff of a Navy assistant secretary before joining the special projects squadron in Hawaii in February 2014.
Then-Lt. Lin gained some notoriety when he spoke in 2008 at a naturalization ceremony while assigned to the Pacific Fleet in Honolulu.
“I always dreamt about coming to America, the ‘promised land,’” he said, according to an official Navy story on his speech. “I grew up believing that all the roads in America lead to Disneyland.”