SINGAPORE: A National University of Singapore (NUS) PhD student who went to Beijing to give a presentation on politics was recruited by Chinese intelligence operatives and went on to work for them, collecting sensitive information about the US military and government.
Singaporean Yeo Jun Wei Dickson pleaded guilty on Friday (Jul 24) to using a fake consultancy business in the United States as a front to collect sensitive US information for Chinese intelligence. He entered his plea in federal court in Washington to one charge of operating illegally as a foreign agent.
In his plea, Yeo admitted to working between 2015 and 2019 for Chinese intelligence, spotting and assessing Americans with access to “valuable non-public information”.
This included information from a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B aircraft programme, another from a US officer working in the Pentagon about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and a report about a person in the State Department about a US Cabinet member.
He recruited these people on social media under orders from the Chinese intelligence service, meeting operatives on more than 20 occasions.
RECRUITED WHILE DOING DOCTORATE IN NUS
Yeo’s work with Chinese intelligence operatives began as early as 2015, when he travelled to Beijing to give a presentation on the political situation in Southeast Asia, court documents show.
At the time, he was studying to receive his Doctorate of Philosophy in Public Policy from NUS.
After his presentation, he was recruited by individuals who claimed to be China-based think tanks. They offered Yeo money in exchange for political reports.
“Yeo came to understand that at least four of these individuals were intelligence operatives for the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government. One of the intelligence operatives later asked Yeo to sign a contract with the PRC People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Yeo refused to sign the contract but continued to work for this and other (Chinese intelligence service) operatives,” a signed statement of facts said.
The operatives tasked him with providing them information about international political, economic and diplomatic relations. They said they wanted “non-public information” – information that they referred to as “scuttlebutt”.
Scuttlebutt is a slang for rumours or gossip.
“At first, the taskings were focused on Southeast Asia. Over time, the taskings became focused on the United States,” court documents read.
“Although these (Chinese intelligence service) operatives used pseudonyms in their interactions with Yeo, they were open about their affiliation with the PRC government. One of the operatives told Yeo that he and his boss worked for the PRC’s main intelligence unit.”
During one of Yeo’s trips to China, he met this operative and two others in a hotel room. During the meeting, the operative instructed Yeo with obtaining non-public information about the US Department of Commerce, artificial intelligence, and the trade war between China and the US.
He met operatives in various locations across China, and met with one Chinese intelligence contact about “19 to 20 times”. He met another operative about 25 times.
Whenever Yeo travelled to China for the meetings, he would be taken out of the customs line and brought to a separate office for admission into China.
He raised this issue with an operative, but they told Yeo they wanted to “conceal his identity” when he travelled into China.
USING SOCIAL MEDIA TO CONNECT WITH TARGETS
Yeo used social media to find and recruit US citizens who could provide him information. In 2018, a Chinese intelligence operative instructed him to create a fake consulting company and post job listings for the company on an online job-search website.
He used the same name as a prominent US consulting firm that conducts public and government relations. More than 400 resumes were sent in, with 90 per cent of them from US military and government personnel with security clearances.
Yeo would send the resumes to Chinese intelligence service operatives if he believed they would find the person’s resume interesting.
A “professional networking website” that was focused on career and employment was used by Yeo to find individuals with resumes and job descriptions that suggested they were likely to have access to valuable “non-public” information.
After he contacted potential targets online, the website began suggesting additional potential contacts.
“According to Yeo, the website’s algorithm was relentless,” court documents said.
“Yeo checked the professional networking website almost every day to review the new batch of potential contacts suggested to him by the site’s algorithm.
“Later, Yeo told US law enforcement that it felt almost like an addiction.”
FINDING TROUBLED TARGETS
After he identified his potential targets, he worked to recruit them to provide information and write reports.
He received guidance from Chinese intelligence contacts on how to recruit potential targets, including asking whether the targets were dissatisfied with work, were having financial troubles, had children to support, and whether they had a good rapport with Yeo.
The court was told of three people he managed to recruit to provide him with information.
In and around 2015, he spotted a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B military aircraft programme. The person has high-level security clearance, and confided in Yeo that he was having financial trouble.
Yeo recruited him to write a report, and the civilian also provided information about the geopolitical implications of the Japanese purchasing F-35 aircraft from the US. Yeo drafted a report and sent it to his contacts in Chinese intelligence.
Between 2018 and 2019, Yeo spotted another person on the professional networking website. This person was employed at the US Department of State at the time, and told Yeo he was feeling dissatisfied at work and was having financial trouble.
He said he was worried about his upcoming retirement.
At Yeo’s direction, the man wrote a report about a then-serving member of the US Cabinet.
The man said he feared that if State Department officials discovered he had provided information to Yeo, it would jeopardise his retirement pension. Yeo paid him S$1,000 or S$2,000 for the report.
Another person was recruited via a social networking app, an US Army officer who was assigned to the Pentagon.
Yeo met the officer on multiple occasions, building up a “good rapport” with him. The officer confided in Yeo that he was traumatised by his military tours in Afghanistan.
Yeo asked the officer to write reports for clients in Korea and other Asian countries, but did not say it would be given to a foreign government.
The officer wrote a report on how the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan would impact China, and was paid S$2,000 or more for the report. The money was transferred to the officer’s wife’s bank account.
Yeo was told to recruit the US officer to provide more classified information, and was offered more money if the officer could become a “permanent conduit of information”.
After Yeo returned to the US in November 2019, he planned to ask the officer for the classified information and wanted to reveal who he was working for.
However, when he landed at the airport, he was stopped by law enforcement and arrested before he could ask for more information from the officer, court documents said.
COMMUNICATING FROM THE US
The statement of facts shows Yeo lived in Washington from about January 2019 to July 2019. Besides recruiting people online, he attended multiple events and speaking engagements at DC-area think tanks, making contact with several individuals from lobbying firms to defence contracting firms.
Yeo was told not to communicate with Chinese intelligence operatives when he travelled to the US over concerns their communications would be intercepted.
He was instructed to email operatives from a local coffee shop, if he needed to do so. Another told him not to take his phone and notebooks while travelling to the US.
Yeo was also given a bank card to pay his American contacts for the information they provided. When Yeo was outside the US, he communicated with a Chinese intelligence operative through WeChat.
He was asked to use multiple phones and to change his WeChat account every time he contacted the Chinese intelligence service operatives.
“Yeo failed to notify the US Attorney General that he would be acting in the United States as an agent of a foreign government or foreign government official,” the court documents said.
Yeo faces a maximum of 10 years imprisonment and will be sentenced on Oct 9.