When we talk of espionage in 2020, what comes to mind is a James Bond-esque or Kingsman situation, with covert operations, swanky suits & flashy firearms.
Dickson Yeo Jun Wei, entered a guilty plea on Friday (24 Jul), in Washington DC’s federal court to single charge — acting as an “illegal foreign agent” in the United States, reports Reuters on 25 Jul.
Here’s a summary of what we know of the case so far, based on the Department of Justice’s press release. Spoiler alert, it involves less firepower & way more secrets than the ‘espionage’ you’re used to seeing in films.
The actual modus operandi by which Yeo operated was simple.
Under the cover of being a recruiter of sorts, he screened resume submissions from his ‘targets’ — typically American citizens working for the military or government.
Forging relationships with employees with “security clearances” who were considering a switch in jobs, he amassed 400+ resumes — 90% from US military & government staff.
When the profiles were deemed of interest to China’s intelligence team, he passed them on.
According to court statements, China operatives instructed him to seek confidential info on these topics:
Yeo founded a “fake consulting company” in 2018, using the same moniker as a “prominent US” firm named Resolute Consulting. The listing has been removed on LinkedIn, but it still comes up on Google’s archives.
Image courtesy of Google
Covert communications were done via WeChat with his handlers & he switched phones and accounts frequently to avoid detection.
Yeo’s routine involved checking if employees fit the profile of being “vulnerable” to recruitment — i.e. had financial issues, low work satisfaction & families to support.
Target 1: US Air Force Employee
Yeo befriended a US Air Force employee with financial problems, who confided in him about a F-35B fighter jet project, involving reasons why Japan had bought these aircraft from US.
Target 2: Ex-Afghanistan Military Tour Officer
A US army officer, whom Yeo struck up a friendship with, had served on military tours in Afghanistan & continued to work through trauma from the experience.
Yeo persuaded him to write a report for how US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan would affect China’s geopolitical ambitions.
Target 3: State Department Employee
Yeo tasked this staff member to write a report on an “unnamed individual” who was part of the US Cabinet back then, despite the employee’s concerns that his “retirement pension” could be rescinded if they were found out.
For each report, Yeo paid US$1,000 to $2,000 (S$1,383-$2,765) — via money received from his contacts in China.
He also told his targets that these reports would be sent to his “clients in Asia”, but instead forwarded them to China’s intelligence team.
At this point, you may be wondering, how did a Singaporean get pulled into this complex web in the first place?
Yeo was allegedly recruited 5 years prior to his arrest. At the time, he was a PhD student in NUS’ Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
On a fateful trip to Beijing, he was recruited by China’s intelligence team & stayed in contact with them on return trips, allegedly receiving “special treatment” upon entering China.
In early-2019, Yeo shifted his homebase to Washington DC, continuing to network & convince more individuals to “write reports”.
Upon returning to the US in Nov 2019, he was arrested by Washington officials when his intended Pentagon officer target presumably alerted authorities, reports Washington Post.
Yeo faces up to 10 years’ jail for his charges, and his case will be tried on 9 Oct 2020.
There you have it. Singapore’s first case of modern espionage definitely dealt a lot more with powerful secrets than leaping off skyscrapers & helicopter-car chases.
That doesn’t mean the political implications aren’t any less, however.
The discovery of a Singapore link to this case may send ripples through US-China relations — amidst pundits’ concerns over a possible trade war.
What do you think of this case? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the implications of this arrest in the comments below.
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