CINCINNATI — The head of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit in Southern Ohio testified on Monday that Chinese intelligence agents downloaded 200 family photos of a GE Aviation engineer before meeting him in 2017, to intimidate him to become a spy.
“I think it shows they took the time to learn about their target,” FBI supervisory special agent Bradley Hull said. “The presence of over 200 images brought to a meeting in a foreign country could be used as a manner of coercion … he still has family in China.”
Hull has spent three days on the witness stand laying out the espionage case against alleged spymaster Yanjun Xu, and enduring cross-examination about its possible weaknesses.
The historic case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati because it centers on Evendale-based GE Aviation.
China specifically wants to steal trade secrets involving polymetric composites, which Hull said GE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop over decades. GE is the only company to possess this technology, allowing it to build bigger, lighter, and more fuel-efficient commercial aircraft and sell them worldwide.
This case began in 2017 when GE noticed suspicious activity by one of its engineers, who had traveled to China to give a presentation at a university with GE documents loaded onto his personal laptop. It launched an internal investigation and alerted the FBI.
“GE looks for employees within its companies with red flags,” Hull said. WCPO is not naming the engineer, who GE suspended without pay in 2017 and fired in 2018, because he has not been charged with a crime.
FBI agents executed a search warrant on the engineer’s home on Nov. 1, 2017, and he began cooperating. He eventually lured Xu to a meeting in Brussels on April 1, 2018, where Belgian police were waiting to arrest him.
Last week a Belgian police chief 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.
Months later Xu was extradited 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, 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.
Xu’s attorney, Ralph Kohnen, described his client as the victim of an FBI setup and an unfortunate pawn in a trade war between the United States and China.
But prosecutors are using Xu’s own words and images – from emails, text messages, photos, calendar entries, documents, and recordings from his confiscated cell phone – to build their case against him.
“People in intelligence like us – we focus on aviation,” Xu said to a colleague in 2016, according to a transcript Hull read aloud in court. “The leadership asks you to get the materials of the U.S. – the U.S. F-22 fighter aircraft. You can’t get it by sitting home.”
The FBI used Xu’s cell phone to learn the inner workings of Chinese espionage, Hull said, including the names of agents who were in Xu’s chain of command, and how they operated.
For example, text messages reveal that Xu and his colleagues used coded numbers and letters to replace sensitive words in correspondence, such as de-icing technology and U.S. aerial refueling aircraft, Hull said.
Prosecutors showed jurors a photo of Xu’s membership card to the Chinese Communist Party, which Hull said “no one” in the FBI had ever seen before.
Xu has been an agent since 2003, steadily earning promotions. His current post is deputy division director in the Sixth Bureau, Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, according to his resume, which was kept as a photo in his cell phone.
Testimony in the case is moving slowly, with two Mandarin interpreters now in the courtroom, who require breaks every 30 minutes. It is expected to last for one month.