FBI testifies to cryptic text messages, envelopes of cash, and a wiped cell phone in espionage trial

FBI: Cell phone wiped after Yanjun Xu's arrest
Convicted Chinese spymaster Yanjun Xu listens to testimony with help from Mandarin interpreter during his trial in 2021
Posted at 6:19 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 22:40:58-04

CINCINNATI — The words could have come from a spy novel or a James Bond movie script.

Instead, they came from one of four cell phones that Belgian police confiscated when they arrested accused Chinese spymaster Yanjun Xu at a Brussels mall on April 1, 2018.

“I put a USB drive in the eyeglass box in the middle of the bookcase, and it contains some encrypted documents. If something happens, someone will come to you and tell you the password.”

FBI agent Todd Vokas read that message, which was written in Chinese and came from an unknown sender, aloud to jurors on Wednesday as he testified about the contents of devices that police confiscated as part of their espionage investigation into the theft of aviation secrets.

The historic case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati because it centers on Evendale-based GE Aviation and its highly successful gas turbine engine, which prosecutors say China wants to duplicate.

Xu, who is also known as Qu Hui and Zhang Hui,is a deputy division director at the Chinese Ministry of State Security, which is the Chinese intelligence agency. He is the first Chinese agent to be extradited to the U.S. on espionage charges.

Agents arrested Xu in Belgium in April 2018and extradited him to the U.S., where a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage and theft of trade secrets.

Xu’s attorney, Ralph Kohnen, described his client as the victim of an FBI setup andan unfortunate pawn in a trade war between the United States and China.

On Wednesday, a Belgian federal police inspector testified about the money, four cell phones, memory cards, hard drives, magnetic keys, card readers, SIM card holders and other devices he found inside a backpack that was carried by Xu’s colleague, Heng Xu, when police intercepted both men.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan questions FBI agent at espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan questions FBI agent at espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

The backpack also contained $7,000 U.S. dollars and more than $7,700 Euros, each wrapped in separate brown envelopes, along with plane and train tickets, passports and credit cards.

FBI agent Todd Vokas conducted a forensic examination of the four cell phones. He testified that someone had remotely wiped one of the confiscated phones, which was tied to Heng Xu, one day after Yanjun Xu’s arrest, so agents found “almost nothing.”

But inside another of the phones were family vacation photos of the GE engineer that prosecutors accuse Yanjun Xu of trying to recruit as a spy. It also contained a note about the composite materials and size of a fan blade – which prosecutors say refers to the technology the Chinese wanted to steal from GE Aviation.

Vokas read aloud another text message sent through the Chinese-owned WeChat app: “Safety is the number one concern when you travel. Don’t push yourself too hard.”

Federal agents also got search warrants from Google and Apple to retrieve emails and account information tied to the confiscated phones, to prove who owned them.

On Thursday, FBI special agent Bradley Hull is expected to testify for most of the day, giving an overview of the entire case.

Testimony ended shortly after lunch on Wednesday when Xu’s lead attorney, Ralph Kohnen, told U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black that his client had requested a second Mandarin interpreter because he was having difficulty keeping up with the fast pace of the testimony.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black and a Belgian federal police chief inspector at the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black and a Belgian federal police chief inspector at the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

Until now Xu has been assisted by his own Mandarin interpreter, who sat between him and attorneys. But Kohnen said she was having a difficult time acting as a liaison between Xu and his attorneys, while simultaneously trying to interpret what witnesses were saying on the stand, at such a rapid pace.

After Black dismissed the jury for the day, he expressed his annoyance at Kohnen’s last-minute request. Before the trial began, Black had asked if Xu needed a courtroom interpreter and his attorneys had declined.

Then, in the middle of trial, Xu did in fact request a second Mandarin interpreter, which Black said is not easy to find on short notice.

"I'm just annoyed and I want you to acknowledge that I am annoyed," Black said to Kohnen. "I just got a bombshell dropped on me in this trial, that we've been planning for a month."

Black said his office did in fact locate an additional Mandarin interpreter who will assist Xu by phone this week, and will arrive in the courtroom next week.

Several times when Black questioned Xu about his request, Xu responded politely in English with, “Yes,” or “Yes, sir.”