When the SF-86 Is a Lie, Chinese Espionage Follows

Security Clearance

In May 2016 a recent recipient of a graduate degree in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) applied to join the U.S. Army Reserves as part of the MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) program. The graduate, identified as Ji Chaoqun (Ji), a Chinese citizen who came to the U.S. under a student visa. As part of the enlistment process, he was asked to fill out an SF-86, which he submitted on June 6,  2016. Unknown at the time, Ji was at the center of an elaborate Chinese espionage operation.

what is the MAVNI program?

The MAVNI program provides authorization to the U.S. Armed Forces to bring in individuals with key skills sets, be they linguistic, medical, or technology related into the armed forces. According to the Military Times, since the program’s inception in 2009, 10,400 troops have come through the program. President Obama ordered program participants be given additional background check scrutiny, effectively freezing the program (September 30, 2016 Defense Department memorandum) in the latter portion of 2016. The respective services were told that their cap for MAVNI candidates were Army: 1200, Navy: 65, Marine Corps: 65, and Air Force: 70.

A key feature of the MAVNI program allows service members an expedited path to U.S. citizenship. And it works, between FY 2001 and FY 2016 more than 109,250 members of the armed forces have obtained citizenship by serving the nation.

Ji’s in the Army now

Ji’s enlistment for all intents and purposes into the U.S. Army Reserves was processed in a normal manner. According to the Department of Justice’s criminal complaint filed on September 21, 2018, Ji provided the answer of “No.” to SF-86 Section 20B which queries as to the applicant’s contact with members of a foreign government inside or out of the United States. Thus his June 2016 submission processed in a normal manner, and fell directly within the time frame when President Obama ordered greater scrutiny. Apparently, Ji passed through this scrutiny, as the U.S. Army Reserves submitted Ji for a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) in December 2017.

During his SSBI interview, Ji was again asked about the existence of a relationship with individuals with ties to foreign governments. At the conclusion of the interview, he signed Army Form 2823, a sworn statement affirming his answers during the SSBI interview were truthful.

Ji’s relationship with China’s intelligence revealed

In late 2017, a counterintelligence investigation was taking place where the FBI was investigating Chinese intelligence attempts to purloin confidential information from a U.S. company. This investigation had nothing to do with Ji.

Within the corpus of information the FBI collected in support of the investigation resided a communication between two Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) intelligence officers which pointed investigators in the direction of Ji.

The FBI and others investigated. In March 2018, a search warrant was issued for an email account and within the account it was discovered that Ji was actively doing target research on U.S. citizens of Chinese ethnicity, involved in the defense sector, aerospace specific. He had conducted open and proprietary research on eight individuals and provided these via email to the MSS.

Ji was acting on behalf of China’s MSS, he was now active. China had an asset, acting at their direction, assisting their operational targeting of the United States defense industry. An asset, with prospects of evolving insider access of extraordinary value.

Further investigation revealed that Ji arrived in the United States in 2013, primed and pumped ready to serve mother China. He obtained his master’s degree and enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves via a program which provided a fast track to U.S. citizenship.

His performance within the Reserves apparently was satisfactory, given the submission of the SSBI a year after enlistment.

Ji’s lies began at his SF-86

Serendipity uncovered Ji’s existence, but sound investigative and operational work neutralized Ji. The FBI inserted an undercover Special Agent who posed as an MSS officer sent to be his intelligence officer handler. During their series of meetings, Ji provided a plethora of self-incriminating information detailing how he was engaged with the MSS from the point of his departure from Beijing in 2013.

Bottom line, Ji Chaoqun filed a false SF-86, and made it through the background investigation process without a hiccup. He successfully penetrated the U.S. Armed Forces and was discovered as part of the collateral in a separate counterintelligence investigation.

Had he not been discovered, one can only speculate what his access to national security classified information would have been and how long until he became a citizen of the United States.

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).