Judge slaps former Chicago student who spied for China with 8 years in federal prison – Chicago Tribune

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a former University of Chicago student to eight years in federal prison for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, saying it was clear his ultimate goal was to become a “sleeper agent” and infiltrate some United States. most sensitive operations.

Lawyers for Ji Chaoqun had asked US District Judge Ronald Guzman for a jail sentence, portraying Ji as an idealistic young student manipulated by far more sophisticated members of China’s spy recruitment agency, and noting that he had never provided his country of origin with sensitive information. American secrets.

In delivering the 96-month term, however, Guzman said he was troubled by Ji’s “long-term” future plans, which included joining the US military to earn a fast track to citizenship. , gain access to sensitive bases and eventually parlay a job with the CIA, FBI or NASA.

“He had a lot more on his mind,” Guzman said, as Ji sat at the defense table in an orange prison jumpsuit listening through a Mandarin interpreter. “It was his intention to become a long-term Chinese sleeper agent.”

Guzman’s sentence was even much longer than the roughly five-year sentence requested by federal prosecutors. Once he completes his sentence, Ji will face deportation to China, although Guzman said it was unlikely anyone would consider him a criminal.

“The defendant sitting in front of me is probably considered an exemplary citizen in the country he comes from, and that’s sad,” Guzman said.

Ji, 31, was found guilty by a jury in September of spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on scientists and engineers in the United States with valuable knowledge of aerospace technology, artificial intelligence and even aircraft carriers.

The jury, which deliberated about six hours over two days, acquitted Ji of two other counts of wire fraud alleging he lied to the military when he applied to become a reservist in 2016.

His lawyer, Damon Cheronis, called for a sentence served, noting that Ji had already suffered a lot during his almost 4 and a half years in detention since his arrest. Ji had two bouts of COVID-19 while awaiting trial and had to endure the misplaced anger of other inmates who accused him of bringing him into the facility simply because he was Chinese, Cheronis said.

“Nobody would think that coming to the United States, getting arrested and being in jail for five years is a slap on the wrist,” Cheronis said.

Before being sentenced, Ji issued a brief apology to his family and the court for his actions, declaring in heavily accented English that he “will never do this again.”

Ji’s case was described in the Tribune in 2019 as symbolic of a growing area of ​​concern for US authorities: a sophisticated and wide-ranging mission by the Chinese government for spies and foreign agents to steal ideas and technology. to defense companies and contractors around the world. country.

Ji Chaoqun is seen in a photo on his Facebook page.  Federal authorities say the Illinois Institute of Technology student was secretly working for a Chinese spy agency.  He is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.

The charges against Ji were part of a larger national security investigation that also led to the unprecedented arrest and extradition of his handler, Xu Yanjun, a senior intelligence officer with the major intelligence agency. Chinese espionage.

Xu, the first Chinese spy ever brought to the United States to face criminal prosecution, was found guilty in federal court in Cincinnati in November 2021 of attempting to steal trade secrets from military contractor GE Aviation. He was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison.

The charges against Ji alleged that he was targeted by Chinese Ministry of State Security agents shortly before he came to Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering at IIT, a small private school just in east of the highway Dan Ryan who had forged educational ties with Chinese universities. and colleges.

After returning to China during winter break, Ji was “propped and dined” by MSS managers and eventually received a top-secret contract where he swore allegiance to the agency’s cause, accepting to “devote the rest of my life to the security of the state”. “, according to prosecutors.

A photo taken surreptitiously by Ji of the contract was later found on his cellphone, even though it was unsigned. Ji also took photos of $6,000 given to him by the MSS for living expenses in the United States, prosecutors said.

Five days later, Ji returned to Chicago and immediately contacted a friend who was studying aeronautics and aviation at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas told jurors summarizing the evidence. during the trial in September.

Ji sent the friend photos of the contract and money and offered to share some of his “operational expenses” with him if he would help find leads for MSS, Jonas said.

Jonas told jurors that sending the photos to his friend was “maybe not the brightest thing” for Ji to do, but it didn’t make him any less of a spy.

“There’s no obligation that you find him to be James Bond,” Jonas said.

In the end, Ji was able to piece together background reports on eight US citizens, all of whom were born in Taiwan or China, with careers in the science and technology industry, several of whom majored in aerospace. Seven worked for US defense contractors, prosecutors said.

Ji returned the reports — which were publicly available for purchase — to his managers in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled as “mid-term review” question sets, according to Jonas.

Ji graduated from IIT in 2015 and the following year he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve as part of a program to recruit foreigners with skills considered vital to the interest national.

Prosecutors alleged that Ji concealed during his military background check that he had been in contact with intelligence agents, but the jury found him not guilty on both counts.

The jury, however, found him guilty of giving false answers on a government form asking if he had ever had contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including the MSS.