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'I know spying when I see it and this is spying,' ex-CIA chief on accused Chinese spymaster

Prosecutors rest case against Yanjun Xu
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions former GE engineer David Zheng in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Posted at 11:03 AM, Nov 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-01 13:45:42-04

CINCINNATI — Prosecutors rested their case against an accused Chinese spymaster late Friday with their last witness, a former CIA chief of counterintelligence, urging the jury to convict, saying, “I know spying when I see it, and this is spying.”

Attorneys for Yanjun Xu had planned to call experts on Chinese culture, intelligence, and technology to bolster their defense. But they notified U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black on Sunday that they will not put on any defense witnesses.

Jurors will hear closing arguments on Wednesday morning and then begin deliberating on this historic case.

The rare espionage trial 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 desperately wants to duplicate.

Xu is the first Chinese intelligence agent ever to be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial. He is deputy division director with the Ministry of State Security, which is the intelligence and security agency for China.

The FBI alerted GE Aviation leaders that one of its engineers, David Zheng, had taken a trip to China in June 2017 to present information about its aircraft engines at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

In the months that followed, the FBI used Zheng, with the promise not to prosecute him if he cooperated. So Zheng lured Xu out of China with promises of more secrets, and to a country where he could be extradited back to the U.S. for trial on espionage charges – Belgium.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan questions FBI language specialist Jason Wong in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan questions FBI language specialist Jason Wong in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

Zheng testified that he was fired from GE three months after the FBI executed search warrants on his house and car on Nov. 1, 2017. He lost his $130,000-a-year job and had no income for months, other than driving Uber delivery food orders, while he cooperated with the FBI.

Zheng testified that he felt flattered to receive an unsolicited invitation from a Chinese university professor on LinkedIn to present his research to students. He did not tell his superiors at GE about his trip to China because the company had strict rules about not allowing employees to present at universities abroad.

Although Zheng did not share trade secrets during his presentation, he did load five training documents from GE onto his personal laptop to help him refine his presentation while in China. But he never purposely shared them.

“I had trouble to project the presentation from the beginning,” Zheng testified about the unexplained trouble he had with his laptop before delivering his PowerPoint presentation. He allowed a Chinese student to insert a thumb drive into his laptop in an effort to help.

Zheng eventually got the PowerPoint presentation to work and accepted $3,500 from Xu's colleagues.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions GE Aviation vice president Eric Ridder in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions GE Aviation vice president Eric Ridder in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

The prosecution’s last witness, Jim Olson, who worked undercover as a CIA spy in Russia, Mexico and Austria for more than 30 years, testified that Xu’s actions were classic spy recruitment techniques for grooming Zheng to deliver aviation secrets to China.

“LinkedIn is a standard spotting mechanism for the MSS,” Olson said. “The conversations and the actions of this individual are the actions of an intelligence officer committing espionage. I have no question about that.”

When questioned under cross-examination as to whether Olson felt that jurors should convict Xu as a duty to their country, he responded, “I believe that Chinese espionage needs to stop. … in my opinion, this would be justice.”

Xu's attorney, Ralph Kohnen, is now asking the judge to strike some of Olson's testimony from the jury's consideration. The judge will rule on that motion and other outstanding issues during a court hearing on Tuesday.

The jury will not return to the courthouse until Wednesday morning.

Yanjun Xu faces a jury on espionage charges.
Yanjun Xu faces a jury on espionage charges.

This case focuses on GE's exclusive composite aircraft engine fan, which no other company in the world has been able to duplicate. This is the technology that prosecutors say Xu was trying to steal for China.

Accused Chinese spymaster Yanjun Xu listens to testimony with help from Mandarin interpreter.
Accused Chinese spymaster Yanjun Xu listens to testimony with help from Mandarin interpreter.

Defense attorneys have insisted that cultural differences can explain Xu's behavior, such as using several alias names and different social media and email addresses.

If jurors convict Xu, experts say it could have wide-reaching consequences for U.S.-China relations.

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