A senior intelligence official is leading an effort within the Bush administration to defend former Defense Intelligence Agency China specialist Ronald Montaperto, who pleaded guilty recently to espionage-related charges involving Chinese intelligence.
Lonnie Henley, a friend of Montaperto and another former DIA China specialist, has written e-mails and had telephone conversations with intelligence and policy officials criticizing the FBI investigation and seeking to downplay the damage caused by Montaperto’s 22 years of contacts with two Chinese military intelligence officers, according to officials familiar with the private support program.
The effort by numerous pro-China intelligence analysts is aimed at protecting their prestige and influence, and at shielding others in government who share Montaperto’s benign views of China and the Chinese military, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The result has been near-silence from the Bush administration and Congress on a major Chinese spy case, while at the same time President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials publicly criticized recent press disclosures of a classified anti-terrorism financial-tracking program.
As deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia under Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John D. Negroponte, Mr. Henley is one of the most senior U.S. intelligence analysts. His defense of Montaperto and criticism of the FBI is unusual and has raised concerns among U.S. counterintelligence officials that there are others in the intelligence community who may have improperly shared classified information with China.
Mr. Henley could not be reached for comment.
DNI spokesman Carl Kropf said: “We decline to offer any comment on this matter and that we have not seen these reported e-mails or heard of such telephone conversations.”
Mr. Kropf said he had no information on whether the U.S. government will conduct a damage assessment of Montaperto’s compromises, but he said the DNI office will do a damage assessment of disclosures by U.S. newspapers of the Treasury Department’s terrorist finance-tracking program.
“This case is enormously important for Americans, as it points to the ability of China to compromise the soul of our China policy-making community,” said Richard Fisher, vice president at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“Without a doubt, Ron Montaperto, through his career in the intelligence community and then his even more important role in helping to form the views of a generation of current American military leaders, and then his writing and activism, has played a major role in forming the U.S. government perceptions that were translated into policy,” Mr. Fisher said.
Montaperto pleaded guilty June 21 in federal court in Alexandria to one count of illegally retaining classified documents, based on statements to investigators and several classified DIA reports found in his Springfield home. He claimed he could not remember all the classified data he supplied Chinese intelligence officers Yang Qiming and Yu Zenghe.
The guilty plea followed statements to investigators made by Montaperto in 2003 that included an admission of providing “top secret” information to Chinese military intelligence officers. Montaperto said he passed top-secret information to Mr. Yu, a military intelligence officer and attache at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, according to the court papers in the case.
Mr. Henley told friends and government officials in the past several days that Montaperto has disputed the spying charges against him, first reported in The Washington Times.
Mr. Henley stated in the e-mails that he spoke recently to Montaperto and that he thinks Montaperto’s disclosures to Chinese intelligence were inadvertent and minor security violations. In one comment, Mr. Henley compared Montaperto to another pro-China intelligence specialist: convicted FBI Agent James J. Smith, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI as part of the Chinese spying operation in Los Angeles.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the statement of facts made public in the case left out many details of Montaperto’s extensive activities on behalf of China.
Former FBI counterintelligence director Dave Szady denied Montaperto was unfairly targeted, saying he is “guilty as hell” and “gave a lot to the Chinese.”
“If he had it, they got it,” said Mr. Szady, who retired earlier this year and was familiar with the case.
Another counterintelligence official said the damage Montaperto caused appears greater than the classified DIA documents found in his house. Montaperto maintained contacts with Chinese military intelligence officials in Hawaii, where he was dean of the U.S. Pacific Command’s think tank until 2003, and in Washington after he left Hawaii, the official said.
Navy Capt. W. Jeffrey Alderson said the Pacific Command does not believe “material at PACOM was compromised” by Montaperto, who held a secret level clearance.