U.S. official gets 3 years for helping Chinese spy

In September of 2009, an ex-Pentagon official with top security clearance was put on trial for knowingly sharing military secrets with an agent of a foreign government – the Chinese government to be specific.

James Fondren, 62, was sentenced today to 3 years in prison and a subsequent 2 years of supervised release. Once a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Fondren got into “consulting” after retiring from the military. And by that we mean that he got involved in espionage by sharing classified intel on U.S.-China military relations with Tai Shen Kuo, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan.

In March 1999, Kuo and Fondren travelled to China together, where Fondren met Kuo’s Chinese government contact. Fondren and the government official proceeded to exchange emails over the course of the next year. Hired into the civilian role of Deputy Director of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Washington Liaison Office, Fondren continued to associate with Kuo, providing him with so-called opinion papers in exchange for payment.

According to Fondren, the papers were a mix of publicly accessible news and his own personal opinion, but the court obviously found otherwise. At the Pacific Command, Fondren had top-secret clearance and access to a classified computer. He certainly had the means to provide Kuo with more than just personal opinion, and it didn’t help his case that Kuo testified against him.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton decided to issue a milder sentence than the 6.5 years requested by the prosecution because the information Fondren shared didn’t really compromise U.S. national security. Only convicted of 3 of the 8 counts brought against him, Fondren still plans to appeal the decision. His lawyer argues that Fondren did not realize Kuo was a spy.

Given the recent hubbub in the news about China’s aggressive cyber espionage – many say that the Google attack was neither the first nor the last – Fondren’s not likely to get much sympathy in the public eye.

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