WASHINGTON – A man from Singapore was sentenced to 14 months in prison Friday for spying by passing to the Chinese government valuable, but unclassified, military and political information that he had duped Americans into giving him.
Jun Wei Yeo admitted participating in an elaborate ruse under the direction of Chinese intelligence operatives that recruited unsuspecting U.S. government employees into writing reports that he said would be sent to clients in Asia. The reports were instead transmitted to the Chinese government as part of what the Trump administration has alleged is a broader effort by China to steal American secrets, including cutting-edge research, for Beijing's economic gain.
Prosecutors allege that Yeo, also known as Dickson Yeo, was motivated not only by greed — he was paid for his work — but also by a shared desire with China's Communist government to weaken the global standing of the United States. Over the course of multiple years, according to the Justice Department, he passed along reports on a military aircraft program, U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and on a Cabinet member, who was not identified in court papers.
“It was a not one-off lapse in judgment that we’re talking about here,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson. The prosecutor said Yeo "worked for a hostile power on our soil to collect nonpublic information of interest to that power.”
The Justice Department believes Yeo was arrested before he was able to obtain any classified information, though prosecutors say he was preparing to receive some soon before he was taken into custody.
The 14-month sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan during a virtual hearing in Washington was two months shorter than the punishment recommended by prosecutors, and took into account Yeo's cooperation with the government as well as the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the U.S. prison system.
Yeo, who was arrested in November 2019 after an interview with the FBI, will receive credit for the jail time he has already served, meaning he should be released in a matter of weeks. He will be deported after the completion of his sentence.
Yeo said he was eager to return home to his family in Singapore. "I take full responsibility for what I have done,” Yeo said.
“I am sympathetic to China’s position,” he told the judge, "but it was not my intention to harm anyone."
Yeo was a doctoral candidate at a Singapore university when prosecutors say he was recruited by intelligence operatives after a 2015 trip to Beijing to give a presentation on the political situation in southeast Asia.
Working under the operatives' direction over the next several years, the Justice Department alleges, he concocted a fake consulting company that shared its name with a prominent U.S. consulting company and used a professional networking site to target and recruit Americans whose jobs he thought would give them access to information that China could use to its advantage.
In addition, prosecutors say, he advertised fake job postings and collected hundreds of resumes from would-be applicants, most of whom were military and government personnel. He passed along the promising resumes to a Chinese handler.
One of his recruits, a civilian who worked for the Air Force and had a high-level security clearance, provided information about the implications of the Japanese purchasing military aircraft from the U.S. that Yeo then turned into a report for his Chinese intelligence contacts. Another recruit, a State Department employee who prosecutors say confided to feeling dissatisfied at work and having financial problems, wrote at Yeo's direction a report on a Cabinet member, court documents say.
Prosecutors said they would have sought a harsher sentence for Yeo, who pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of a foreign government, but for his cooperation. He was approached by the FBI at an airport last November, and though he initially declined an interview request and headed toward boarding his flight, he changed his mind and returned to the agents to agree to be questioned.
“Mr. Yeo, while he was still free to leave the United States, agreed to cooperate with the United State and within hours was completely truthful with the government about what was going on,” said Michelle Peterson, his federal defender.
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