US jails Singaporean for spying for China

Yeo set up a political consultancy in Washington which he used to identify Americans with high-level security clearances that he sought to pay for classified information. (Facebook pic/Dickson Yeo)

WASHINGTON: A Singaporean academic who recruited US officials to provide classified political and defence information to China was sentenced to 14 months in prison by a US court Friday.

Working with Chinese intelligence since 2015, Jun Wei Yeo, also called Dickson Yeo, set up a political consultancy in Washington which he used to identify Americans with high-level security clearances that he sought to pay for classified information.

The 39-year-old was arrested at an airport in November 2019 and pleaded guilty in July to one count of operating illegally as a foreign agent, which can bring up to 10 years in prison.

But he was given a relatively light sentence and credited for 11 months already spent in prison based on his cooperation with US authorities and also due to the threat of contracting Covid-19 in jail, said Washington federal judge Tanya Chutkan.

The sentence means he could be released and expelled from the US by January.

In a sentencing hearing conducted by teleconference, Yeo appeared to break down as he expressed regrets, and said he had no intention to harm anyone.

He said he had been treated well by US justice authorities.

“All I’d like to do is to go home to my family,” he said.

But then he added that he remains supportive of Beijing.

“I am still sympathetic to the Chinese cause,” he told the court.

“Politically, I do have sympathy. I admit that freely,” he said.

Chutkan, whose sentence was two months less than the 16 months recommended by federal prosecutors, drew a comparison with other countries, telling Yeo: “I’m going to punish you for what you did, not what you think.”

“Mr Yeo worked under the direction of the intelligence service of the People’s Republic of China,” she said.

“The crime that Mr Yeo committed was not a momentary lapse of judgment.”

“I can tell you are a highly educated man and I have no doubt you understood you knew what you were doing,” she told Yeo.

“Your operation was designed to weaken the US for the benefit of China.”

At the same time, Chutkan said she had to accept prosecutors’ assertions that Yeo cooperated well with investigators in the case.

In addition, she noted Yeo had survived 11 months in US prisons, where there are extensive coronavirus outbreaks, without getting infected.

“Yeo is fortunate. So far he has not gotten Covid-19,” she said.

“It would be horrible if he gets it because he has to spend a few more months in jail.

A PhD student at the National University of Singapore, Yeo was directed by Chinese intelligence to open up a fake consultancy in the US and offer jobs, according to his indictment.

He received more than 400 resumes, 90% of which were from US military or government personnel with security clearances.

He used these and the networking functions of LinkedIn to track down possible targets, focusing on people with top security clearances.

He recruited several people to work with him, targeting those who admitted to financial difficulties.

They included a civilian working on the Air Force’s F-35B stealth fighter-bomber project, a Pentagon army officer with Afghanistan experience, and a State Department official, all of whom were paid as much as US$2,000 for writing reports for Yeo.

Prosecutors said Friday that he never got as far as collecting highly classified information, but that was his intent.