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Chin Convicted as Spy for China : He Faces the Possibility of Two Life Sentences

February 08, 1986|DON SHANNON | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Larry Wu-tai Chin, accused of having spied for China from inside the U.S. intelligence system for 30 years, was convicted Friday on all 17 counts of a federal indictment, two of them espionage charges carrying the possible penalty of a life sentence.

The 63-year-old naturalized American citizen, one of a swarm of suspected spies uncovered in the last year, stood silently, his expression unchanging, as he heard the verdict of the jury, which had deliberated slightly more than three hours. Chin's wife, Cathy, sobbed as the decision was read.

Timing of Sentence

U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. said he expects to hand down a sentence within a month.

At the time of his arrest last November, the former CIA analyst was accused by the government of having used his position to deliver to Peking secret documents of major importance. During the four-day trial, Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Aronica asserted that the leaks could have delayed the armistice in the Korean War and the settlement of the Vietnam War, causing needless loss of American lives.

"We are obviously pleased with the verdict," Aronica said as he left the courthouse. "It's sad, however, to discover that an American citizen has been spying for another country for 30 years."

The first espionage count accused Chin of having conspired with Chinese intelligence agents to transmit defense-related documents potentially damaging to U.S. interests or advantageous to those of China.

Chin had admitted both in statements to the FBI and on the witness stand Thursday that he had maintained contact with Chinese agents since 1952 and had operated as a "mole" planted in the U.S. intelligence network. But he asserted that he was trying only to improve Sino-American relations, not compromise U.S. security.

The second espionage count charged Chin specifically with having transmitted to a foreign agent in 1952 information about the location of prison camps in Korea where Chinese prisoners were held.

Dispatched to Korea

Chin, at the time employed as a secretary and translator at the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, had been dispatched to Korea to assist in the interrogation of Chinese prisoners.

Defense attorney Jacob Stein argued that Chin was not a citizen at the time, had no security clearance and, most important, intended no harm to the United States. But that defense suffered a blow when Merhige, in his final statement to the jury, warned against confusing motive and intent.

"Motive refers to why people do things," the judge said. "Personal advancement and financial gain are two well-known motives. A good motive alone is never an excuse. Intent is determined by whether someone knew he was doing an unlawful act."

The rapid conclusion of the complex case appeared to have been enhanced by the meticulous diaries Chin kept. Pages of handwritten notes, nearly all in English, were enlarged to poster size and presented in court for the jury to see. Chin's testimony in nearly every detail confirmed his written words, leaving little for the prosecution to add.

Possibility of Appeal

The defense's plea of innocence despite the volume of evidence had promoted speculation that Stein might seek to bargain for a lesser sentence--perhaps by threatening to subpoena Ou Qiming, a Chinese agent who was Chin's initial contact, and thereby embarrassing the government in an era of good relations with Peking. But Stein said Friday that he had never contemplated such an action.

Stein told reporters after the verdict that in any appeal he would contest Merhige's interpretation of the espionage statutes. He also said the absence of testimony from Ou should have been stressed by the judge.

Four additional counts against Chin, each carrying a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment, cited specific instances where Chin passed classified documents to Chinese agents in Hong Kong, Toronto and elsewhere.

In six more counts, Chin was accused of failing to report on his income tax forms what he admitted to be at least $10,000 a year in payments for his spying since 1979. The last five counts accused Chin of having systematically lied in not disclosing to the Treasury Department the Hong Kong bank accounts where he hid the money he received from Peking.

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