I like to give helpful hints, so here’s a tip: when you’re working as an agent of a foreign government, and enlist in the Army Reserve under a program for immigrants, and the program later comes under added scrutiny because people don’t think it’s adequately vetting enlistees, perhaps you ought to just  lay low for a while. Also, when you’re running an intelligence operation on foreign soil, don’t use a smartphone to communicate with your counterparts, since doing so leaves a massive digital trail behind you.

Ji Chaoqun and acting as an unregistered foreign agent

According to the government’s criminal complaint, Ji Chaoqun is a 27-year-old Army Reservist who moved from China to the U.S. in August 2013 on a student visa. He began his studies for a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology in December of 2015. He is now charged with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.

This is, of course, the same charge leveled against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for his role in representing the Turkish government, and against Paul Manafort (and a bipartisan group of Washington heavyweights) for doing the same for the former government of Ukraine. Representing the interests of a foreign government in the U.S. is not a crime. Not registering with the Department of Justice in accordance with the foreign Agent Registration Act is a crime.

And it’s often a crime used to prosecute would-be spies when there is either insufficient evidence for actual espionage, or when they are apprehended before they can actually carry-out their plans. This appears to be the case with Ji.

ji used commercial services, mavni program to make himself useful to china

The story began with an unnamed individual living in southern Ohio who worked for an unnamed aerospace company. The government’s description of the company was only described as “among the world’s top aircraft engine suppliers for both commercial and military aircraft.”

There’s plenty of electronic evidence to tie this individual to a Chinese intelligence officer who had extensive contact – both electronic and in-person – with Ji. After returning to the U.S., Ji used online services Intelius, Instant Checkmate, and Spokeo in 2015 to obtain information on eight naturalized U.S. citizens born in China or Taiwan, seven of whom worked in the aerospace industry for cleared contractors.

But it seems as though the Chinese had bigger plans for Ji. In May 2016, he enlisted in the Army Reserve under the MAVNI program (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest). This program recruits non-permanent residents with critical skills (particularly language skills) into the Army in exchange for eventual permanent residence. The Department of Defense halted the program in May 2017 over concerns that it could not adequately vet the applicants.

the Mavni program comes under close scrutiny

I was among those who were critical of this move, since the government did not show any clear nexus between recruits and clear security threats. With this one case, the Chinese intelligence apparatus has proven the doubters right. Ji was being tested by his handlers, and it’s clear they hoped he would obtain a security clearance through his military service. Combining his engineering background with a security clearance would give him greater access to industry, where he could start to steal real secrets for the People’s Republic instead of just buying background reports.

With the added scrutiny of the program, the smart move would have been for Ji to lay low. But he either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, because in April, he began meeting with someone he thought was a new contact, but who was in fact an undercover special agent of the FBI. Thinking he was talking to a comrade, Ji freely offered details of everything he’d been up to on behalf of the Chinese government.

Nothing he’s done so far constitutes espionage, but it’s fairly clear that’s where his career was headed. So he’s charged with the Foreign Agent Registration Act violation, ending his career as a Chinese spy. Why he hasn’t been charged with lying on his SF-86 isn’t clear. One assumes the government could threaten to add the charge if Ji doesn’t cooperate.

But his lack of discretion exposed exactly what those opposed to the MAVNI program were afraid of. The program may not recover from it.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin