Former Pentagon official pleads guilty in China spy case

The case involves classified Taiwan weapons data and follows admissions about an errant shipment of nuclear fuses to Taiwan.

A former Pentagon official pleaded guilty in court Monday to an espionage charge over the disclosure of secret data to an alleged Chinese agent in the US. Gregg Bergersen said he was unaware that the Taiwan-born businessman was passing the information to China. Mr. Bergersen, a weapons systems policy analyst who resigned his job last week, could face up to 10 years in prison.

The leaked data concerned US weapons programs for Taiwan, which China has threatened to regain by force, if necessary. Taiwan is a potential flash point for US-China rivalry in East Asia, and US military support for Taiwan is an irritant to Beijing. In turn, Taiwan has flagged China's steady buildup of missiles capable of hitting Taiwan. US military officials have warned that China and Russia have stepped up military spying activities in recent years, focusing on advanced weapon technology.

Last week, US officials anxiously contacted China after the Pentagon revealed that it had sent nuclear fuses to Taiwan by mistake in 2006, an embarrassing admission that raised eyebrows over US safeguards on nuclear-related technology, reports the Los Angeles Times. The admission sent mixed signals about US-Taiwan relations.

Chinese espionage has become a serious counterintelligence challenge, reports The Christian Science Monitor. US analysts say China employs a large network to acquire sensitive data in small chunks with students and scientists among those recruited.

In two separate developments this week, a judge in California agreed to postpone until next May the trial of a Chinese-American engineer charged with stealing military and aerospace trade secrets on behalf of China, the Associated Press reports, and a federal court sentenced a Chinese-born engineer working on a Navy warship to 24 years in jail for trying to pass "sensitive data" to China, Bloomberg reports.

In Monday's trial, the Washington Post reports that Tai Shen Kuo, the alleged Chinese agent, plied Bergersen with money and gifts, including money for gambling, though a judge said that money might not have been the prime motivation. A prosecutor told the district court in Alexandria, Va. that Mr. Kuo had cultivated Bergersen as a source of information, without explicitly agreeing to buy data from him.

The Associated Press reports that Taiwanese military officials have said that Bergersen's disclosures were damaging but hadn't compromised key defense technology. Bergersen pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to pass national defense information to unauthorized persons. Prosecutors have also charged Kuo and another defendant, Chinese national Yu Xin Kang, with more serious counts of espionage that carry potential life sentences. Both are in jail awaiting trial.

US government agents tracked Bergersen and Kuo to several locations between March 2007 and their arrest in February, reports the Times-Picayune. At one meeting, Kuo stuffed $3,000 into Bergersen's shirt pocket and in return was given the data on weapons sales to Taiwan. The documents "had jagged marks where Bergersen had snipped off the 'classified' markings."

The espionage trial comes on the heels of last week's revelation by the Defense Department that it had mistakenly shipped nuclear warhead fuses to Taiwan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered an investigation into the error, and Pentagon officials said that China had been informed in advance of the announcement, reported Al Jazeera. Officials said the apparent mix-up in 2006 didn't mean any change in US policy towards Taiwan.

President Bush repeated this message to Chinese President Hu Jintao during a phone call last week, reported The Associated Press. National security advisor Stephen Hadley told reporters that the issue was briefly discussed and that Bush told Hu "that a mistake had been made."

Last year, the US Air Force revealed that a B-52 bomber carrying nuclear cruise missiles flew over the US by mistake. This apparent carelessness belies the US government's diplomatic efforts to halt nuclear proliferation and its criticism of Russia for not securing its own weapons stockpile, reports The New York Times.

NBC News's Deep Background blog says the Pentagon's erroneous shipment was a reminder of 40 years of subterfuge over Taiwan's on-off ambition to acquire a nuclear deterrent against what it considers a hostile neighbor. US spy agencies have long tried to keep Taiwan nuclear-free, but a dormant program could be reactivated, making it crucial to come clean on the Pentagon's latest error before Beijing could jump to conclusions.

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