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Pentagon official charged with conspiracy

The criminal complaint alleges that James Wilbur Fondren Jr., while working for the Defense Department, conspired to turn over classified information to an agent of China.

May 14, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities charged a Pentagon official Wednesday with conspiracy to communicate classified information to a Chinese agent, including details of sensitive U.S.-China military partnerships.

In a complaint unsealed in suburban Washington, prosecutors alleged that James W. Fondren Jr., 62, passed Defense and State department information to the agent from 2004 to 2008.

Fondren, deputy director of the Washington Liaison Office of the U.S. Pacific Command, has been on administrative leave with pay since February 2008.

He waived his right to a preliminary hearing at a brief appearance Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., and was released. If convicted, he faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Pentagon officials had no comment.

Fondren's prosecution is the latest result of a long-term counter-espionage investigation that has yielded three convictions, including that of former Defense Department official Gregg W. Bergersen, who pleaded guilty to related charges last year, according to David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say agents for the Chinese government and military have been engaged in a long-running and voracious effort to obtain U.S. military and trade secrets.

Dana J. Boente, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said Fondren's actions constituted "a real and serious threat to our national security."

But Fondren's defense lawyer, Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman and Bush administration official, said his client "did not at any time knowingly provide classified information to any agent" of China.

"All the facts will have to come out later, but this is not a typical espionage case," Hutchinson said in an interview.

The complaint and related documents allege that Fondren conspired to steal U.S. secrets after retiring from active duty as an Air Force lieutenant colonel in 1996 and becoming a consultant.

His sole client was a friend, Tai Shen Kuo, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan who lived primarily in Louisiana and maintained business interests in the United States and China, the complaint said. Kuo was arrested last year on related charges and pleaded guilty.

In August 2001, Fondren became a civilian employee at the Pacific Command and was given a top-secret security clearance, allowing him to work with "sensitive compartmented information," prosecutors said.

Fondren continued to provide consulting services for Kuo, who, unknown to Fondren, worked under the direction of an unidentified Chinese government official.

According to an affidavit, the Chinese official told Kuo to mislead Fondren into believing that he was providing information to Taiwan military officials.

Fondren allegedly incorporated Defense Department information into "opinion papers" that he sold to Kuo for between $350 and $800 apiece, the court documents said.

The papers included classified information from a State Department cable about a Chinese military official's U.S. visit, documents about a joint U.S.-China naval exercise and material regarding U.S.-China military meetings, prosecutors said.

They also said Fondren provided Kuo with a draft Defense Department report on the Chinese military, stating to Kuo: "This is the report I didn't want you to talk about over the phone. . . . Let people find out I did that, it will cost me my job."

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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