A 27-year-old Chinese national who served in the U.S. Army Reserve was arrested Tuesday on a federal charge of helping China-based intelligence operatives recruit spies living in this country, according to federal prosecutors.
Ji Chaoqun, who has lived in Chicago since 2013, was ordered held without bond Tuesday during an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Mason.
A criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday accuses Ji of working with intelligence officers at China’s Ministry of State Security by sending information about eight potential recruits to the confidential unit in 2015.
The eight people were naturalized U.S. citizens born in mainland China or Taiwan who were working in or had recently retired from jobs in the science, technology or aerospace fields, according to the 16-page complaint. At least seven of those people were employed by U.S. defense contractors.
Ji emailed the background reports — purchased from Spokeo, Intelius and Instant Checkmate for a total of $700 — to a Chinese intelligence official through an email with the subject line, “Midterm Test Questions,” the complaint says.
“In my training and experience, it is typical for Chinese intelligence officers to instruct their U.S. assets to conceal information they are providing to their handlers in China in order to protect that information, the asset and the intelligence officer,” FBI Special Agent Andrew McKay wrote in the complaint.
In May, the complaint alleges, Ji disclosed the arrangement to an undercover FBI agent who took audio and video recordings of their meeting. Ji said he met the intelligence officers during a school fair in Beijing that promoted the confidential unit.
“They just wanted me to purchase some documents on their behalf,” Ji told the agent. “Their reason was just because it was inconvenient for them to make payments from China.”
Ji’s court-appointed lawyer, Laura Hoey, declined to comment Tuesday through a spokesman for her law firm.
Despite Ji’s alleged contacts with several Chinese intelligence officers, he was able to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserve in May 2016, according to the complaint.
Ji applied to the Army through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, which allows the armed forces to recruit noncitizens with specialized skills, the complaint says.
Representatives for the Army Reserve did not respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.
Ji moved to Chicago on an F1 visa that allowed him to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2015, according to the complaint.
Authorities began investigating Ji in late 2017 when 36 text messages from his cellphone appeared in an a Apple iCloud database that agents seized during a separate probe in Ohio.
That investigation focused on someone accused of providing technical information about a leading aircraft company to the Chinese government.
Ji allegedly exchanged text messages with two Chinese intelligence officers between December 2013 and July 2015, according to the complaint.
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