FBI counterintelligence probe led to arrest of federal employee working for the Republic of China Navy

President of Republic of China (Taiwan) Tsai Ing-wen reviews a Marine Corps battalion in 2020

Robert Snell

The Detroit News

Oct. 25—Detroit — FBI agents Tuesday arrested a federal employee who lied about working for the Taiwanese Navy and using the COVID pandemic as cover to move to Taiwan, according to a criminal case unsealed in federal court.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee Yifei Chu, 57, of Ypsilanti was charged with making false statements about his contacts with the Taiwanese (ROC) Navy and falsifying documents while applying for a security clearance. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

The 32-page criminal complaint details a rare local investigation involving members of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, which investigates, exposes and tries to prevent national security threats from foreign intelligence services and other intelligence activities. The investigation uncovered multiple lies revealed after federal investigators searched Chu’s emails and other electronic devices and discovered prolonged contact with members of the Taiwanese Navy.

It was unclear whether Chu was being cultivated by Taiwanese officials as an intelligence source.

“That is a long-term effort that intelligence services around the world try to do all the time; trying to develop sources and methods that can benefit your country,” said Javed Ali, an associate professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy who has worked for the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Defense Intelligence Agency.

“If there were national security concerns,” Ali added, “hopefully those were alleviated by his arrest.”

Chu, who also is known as Philip Chu, was ordered held without bond pending a detention hearing Wednesday in federal court in Detroit.

” Dr. Chu maintains that he is innocent of the charges brought by the government and is looking forward to clearing his name once he gets his day in court,” his lawyer, Jamil Khuja, said in an email to The Detroit News.

The investigation emerged in December 2020 after Chu, a naturalized U.S. citizen, applied for a three-year assignment working for the U.S. Navy in the Office of Naval Research Global at the U.S. embassy in Singapore.

The position requires a secret security clearance. During the application process, Chu made false statements, including during an interview with background investigators and in an affidavit, according to an FBI special agent’s affidavit filed in federal court.

Those false statements included Chu failing to disclose extensive contacts with Taiwanese naval officials and a Taiwanese company, including that he had been hired as a consultant on a classified naval project, according to the affidavit.

Chu also concealed that he lived in Taiwan for about 11 months from 2020-21 without his supervisors’ knowledge. Chu was born in Taiwan and signed paperwork indicating he had renounced his citizenship in 2008, according to the FBI.

“They believed Chu worked remotely from his residence in Michigan during the 11-month period he was in Taiwan,” The FBI special agent wrote.

A review of Chu’s emails revealed he owned a condominium in Taiwan as recently as 2010.

“Some of the associated emails and attachments were documents that appear to be sale negotiations, contracts for sale, associated parking spaces, and property deeds,” the FBI agent wrote.

Investigators say Chu also met repeatedly with members of the Taiwanese Navy on a military base in Taiwan while working as a consultant.

Chu also lied about obtaining a new Taiwanese passport and traveling to the country in 2020 and as recently as August.

“Chu also sought to conceal the fact that he is still a citizen of Taiwan,” prosecutors said Tuesday.

Taiwan is a self-ruled island that China claims as part of its own territory. Though the U.S. and Taiwan do not have a diplomatic relationship, the countries maintain a trade partnership and President Joe Biden said in May that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan.

“Espionage is espionage,” Ali said. “The story is: you don’t turn a blind eye, even if it is with a country that you have a good solid relationship.”

Chu is at least the second person arrested in Metro Detroit in recent years by members of the FBI Counterintelligence Division.

Amin Hasanzadeh, an Ann Arbor engineer and a post-doc researcher at the University of Michigan, was arrested in November 2019 and accused of sending tech secrets to Iran.

A subsequent court filing revealed FBI agents “surreptitiously entered” Hasanzadeh’s apartment in December 2017 and approximately five years passed before Hasanzadeh became aware of the search. The search was fruitful as investigators found thousands of confidential files belonging to Hasanzadeh’s employer.

The Associated Press contributed.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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