Breach, Threat Management, Data Security, Incident Response, TDR

Defense Department insider charged with espionage

A Defense Department official has been charged with espionage conspiracy after allegedly selling classified U.S. government information to an agent of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

James Wilbur Fondren Jr., 62, was the deputy director for the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) Washington Liaison Office from August 2001 until February 11, 2008. Working at the Pentagon, with top secret clearances and access to a classified government computer system, Fondren provided U.S. government information to representative of the PRC, according to a criminal complaint against Fondren unsealed today by the Eastern District of Virginia.

"The allegations in this case are troubling -- providing classified information to a foreign agent of the People's Republic of China is a real and serious threat to our national security," said Dana Boente, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, quoted in a news release put out by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) today. "The U.S. government places considerable trust in those given access to classified information, and we are committed to prosecuting those who abuse that trust."

According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Fondren, who is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, provided these documents to a close business friend named Tai Shen Kuo, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan living in Louisiana and working under the direction of a PRC government official. The affidavit claimed a PRC official paid Kuo approximately $50,000 to retrieve information and documents from Fondren and other U.S. government officials, including Gregg William Bergersen, a former weapons policy analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Defense Security Cooperation Agency in the Defense Department.

The PRC official then told Kuo to mislead Fondren into believing that he was providing information for Taiwan military officials instead of for PRC officials. Regardless, Fondren was aware that Kuo was providing the information to an agent of a foreign government, the affidavit alleges.

According to the affidavit, the sensitive data Fondren sold to Kuo included information from the State Department, news about a PRC military official's U.S. visit, data about a joint U.S.-PRC naval exercise, and information regarding U.S.-PRC military meetings – all of which was classified.

In February 2008, Kuo and Bergersen, were arrested on espionage charges. In March 2008, Bergersen pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Virginia to conspiracy to disclose U.S. national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it. He was later sentenced to 57 months in prison. In May 2008, Kuo pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Virginia to conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. He was sentenced to 188 months in prison, according to the DoJ news release.

During FBI interviews, Kuo provided information about his relationship with Fondren. Wednesday morning, Fondren turned himself in to federal agents and is awaiting an appearance in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. If convicted, he faces a maximum five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine, according to the affidavit.

"The conduct alleged in this complaint should serve as a warning to others in government who would compromise classified information and betray the trust placed in them by the American people," said David Kris, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, as quoted in the DoJ news release.

The low number of reported incidents of this nature suggests that the U.S. government is doing a good job of preventing the insider threat, Robert Grapes, chief technologist for software security vendor Cloakware, told Wednesday in an email. What we don't know, however, is how many of these events remain undetected or are not reported, he added.

“Part of the challenge of preventing the insider threat is in not restricting access to information to such an extent that people are not able to do their jobs,” Grapes said.

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