Kun Shan Chun, aka “Joey Chun,” was sentenced in a New York City federal court on January 20 to serve 24 months in prison and pay a US$10,000 fine. The FBI employee was convicted for acting in the United States as an agent of the People’s Republic of China without providing prior notice to the Attorney General.
He had worked since 1997 at the New York field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was arrested in March 2016, and pled guilty on August 1.
Among other things, in early 2015, Chun took photographs of documents displayed in a restricted area of the FBI’s New York Field Office, which summarized sensitive details regarding multiple surveillance technologies used by the FBI.
Chun sent the photographs to his personal cellphone, and later admitted to the FBI that he caused the photographs to be transported to a Chinese official in China. In a release issued by the US Department of Justice, Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said, “Kun Shan Chun, an FBI employee, was supposed to work to protect and serve the American people. But instead, he acted as a secret agent of China. For that betrayal, Chun has now been sentenced to federal prison.”
That said, Chun was not charged with espionage.
In the same release, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jnr said, “The FBI continues to be vigilant in an effort to warn American industries, businesses and institutions of the dangers posed by the insider threat. This investigation validates that we at the FBI are not immune to the threat of an insider.
“The FBI will continue to diligently protect its equities, and those of both our US intelligence community partners and those in the private sector, from insiders looking to steal our information and use it against us.”
According to the charges filed against Chun, he “received and responded to requests from Chinese nationals and at least one Chinese government official at least some of whom were aware that Chun worked at the FBI.
“On multiple occasions prior to his arrest in March 2016, while engaging in a prolonged and concerted effort to conceal from the FBI his illicit relationships with these individuals, Chun disclosed to [a Chinese official] – at minimum – information regarding the FBI’s personnel, structure, technological capabilities, general information regarding the FBI’s surveillance strategies, and certain categories of surveillance targets.”
When he confessed to most of the foregoing activities, he said that he was motivated in part by the financial benefits that he and others derived from these relationships, but also admitted that he understood that he had provided assistance to the Chinese government.
On multiple occasions prior to his arrest in March 2016 … Chun disclosed … information regarding the FBI’s personnel, structure, technological capabilities … surveillance strategies, and certain categories of surveillance targets
Items seized at his residence at the time of his arrest included a .40 caliber handgun and an AR-15 rifle, neither of which was registered in New York, according to his arrest file. A thumb drive that contained three files with sensitive FBI information dating back to approximately 2006 and 2007.
Because the FBI did not require him to work from home, there was no legitimate reason for him to have possessed these files at his residence, including one marked with a security header that read “FBI sensitive information for official use only.”
FBI documents reveal that this file “described technical details of FBI surveillance infrastructure, including specific information about networks used to store highly sensitive, classified data.”
A second file “contained information relating to ways in which FBI employees could access raw intelligence information, and it included network details and unique usernames for ten FBI employees.”
The third file – dated July 2007 – contained a spreadsheet that included names and telephone numbers of FBI personnel with jobs similar to Chun’s position, as well as telephone numbers for lines that Electronics Technicians such as Chun would have used to configure or troubleshoot network issues with the FBI’s New York Office.
Three months after Chun’s arrest, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission listened as a panel discussed, “Chinese Intelligence Collection Operations and Implications for US National Security.”
Among the panelists at this June 2016 session was Michelle Van Cleave who served as the national counterintelligence executive under President George W. Bush – thereby acting as head of US counterintelligence.
“Instead of looking at the strategic implications of China’s intelligence operations, the US government for the most part has adopted a case-by-case approach to dealing with the threat they represent,” said Van Cleave.
“In the wake of the [US Office of Personnel Management or OPM breach in 2014] and the cumulative effects of China’s intelligence successes against us, there is little hope that we can ever get ahead of the curve by staying the course. Perhaps the time has come to take a hard look at how the considerable resources of US counterintelligence are organized and work to counter foreign intelligence services,” she added.
“Over 80% of US counterintelligence resources are based at home, where our counterintelligence effort has been concentrated on counterespionage investigations, (ie, on violations of criminal statutes against espionage and related offenses such as failure to register as foreign agent, mishandling of classified information, and certain violations of export control laws).
“Where successful, these cases may result in prosecutions, démarches, or the expulsion of diplomatic personnel for activities inconsistent with their status. But with rare exception, their disposition is decided on the merits of the instant case and not as part of a larger effort to counter the foreign intelligence service as a strategic target.”
An excerpt from the FBI complaint detailed Chun’s dealings. “In approximately 2011, during a trip to Italy and France, Chinese nationals introduced Chun to Chinese Official-1,” it said. Chinese Official-1 indicated that he worked for the Chinese government, and that he knew Chun worked for the FBI.
“During subsequent private meetings conducted abroad between Chun and Chinese Official-1, Chinese Official-1 asked questions about sensitive, nonpublic FBI information. During those meetings, Chun disclosed, among other things, the identity and potential travel patterns of an FBI Special Agent.”
The reference to “multiple surveillance technologies” as well as the above excerpt from the FBI complaint point to a broad series of covert actions undertaken by Chun.
However, at least one contact who has closely studied the OPM breach in 2014 in particular – a large scale hack undertaken by Chinese military personnel – urged people here not to read too much into the language of the FBI complaint. The contact emphasized that the FBI “often writes those things in such a way as to make the allegations seem ominous.”
“The fact that they only charged him with failure to report is telling. If he’d purposefully transmitted documents that required security clearance, I have to imagine they’d have no problem charging him with espionage.”
Van Cleave had made the point during her USCC presentation that the sheer volume of this intelligence-gathering activity by China and others which is coming from so many directions in the US, has become overwhelming.
“Now, however, foreign powers including China increasingly are running intelligence operations with unprecedented independence from the former safe havens of their diplomatic establishments. The number of formal and informal ports of entry to the country, the ease with which people can travel internally and the relatively benign operational environment of the US are tailor made for embedded clandestine collection activities,” Van Cleave said.
“Thousands of foreign-owned commercial establishments within the United States, the routine interactions of trade and transnational business and finance, and the exchange of hundreds of thousands of students and academicians, all potentially extend the reach of Chinese intelligence into the core structures of our Nation’s security,” she added.
When this “benign operational environment” began to take shape is unclear. What we do know is that Chun began to carry out his mission inside the FBI field office in NYC a decade ago.