CINCINNATI — Prosecutors rested their case against an accused Chinese spymaster late Friday with their last witness, a former CIA chief of counterintelligence, urging the jury to convict, “I know spying when I see it, and this is spying.”
On Tuesday, attorneys for Yanjun Xu will begin presenting their defense, which consists of experts on Chinese culture, intelligence, and aircraft engine technology. Their goal is to convince jurors that Xu is not a spy, but rather the victim of an FBI entrapment.
Jurors will likely begin deliberating on this historic case, which began on Oct. 19, this week.
The rare espionage trial is being heard in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati because it centers on Evendale-based GE Aviation and its highly successful gas turbine engine, which prosecutors say China desperately wants to duplicate.
Xu is the first Chinese intelligence agent ever to be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial. He is deputy division director with the Ministry of State Security, which is the intelligence and security agency for China.
The FBI alerted GE Aviation leaders that one of its engineers, David Zheng, had taken a trip to China in June 2017 to present information about its aircraft engines at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
In the months that followed the FBI used Zheng, with the promise not to prosecute him if he cooperated. So Zheng lured Xu out of China with promises of more secrets, and to a country where he could be extradited back to the U.S. for trial on espionage charges – Belgium.
Zheng testified that he was fired from GE three months after the FBI executed search warrants on his house and car on Nov. 1, 2017. He lost his $130,000-a-year job and had no income for months, other than driving Uber delivery food orders, while he cooperated with the FBI.
Zheng testified that he felt flattered to receive an unsolicited invitation from a Chinese university professor on LinkedIn to present his research to students. He did not tell his superiors at GE about his trip to China because the company had strict rules about not allowing employees to present at universities abroad.
Although Zheng did not to share trade secrets during his presentation, he did load five training documents from GE onto his personal laptop to help him refine his presentation while in China. But he never purposely shared them.
“I had trouble to project the presentation from the beginning,” Zheng testified, about the unexplained trouble he had with his laptop before delivering his PowerPoint presentation. He allowed a Chinese student to insert a thumb drive into his laptop in an effort to help.
Zheng eventually got the PowerPoint presentation to work and accepted $3,500 from Xu’s colleagues.
The prosecution’s last witness, Jim Olson, who worked undercover as a CIA spy in Russia, Mexico and Austria for more than 30 years, testified that Xu’s actions were classic spy recruitment techniques for grooming Zheng to deliver aviation secrets to China.
“LinkedIn is a standard spotting mechanism for the MSS,” Olson said. “The conversations and the actions of this individual are the actions of an intelligence officer committing espionage. I have no question about that.”
When questioned under cross-examination as to whether Olson felt that jurors should convict Xu as a duty to their country, he responded, “I believe that Chinese espionage needs to stop. … in my opinion, this would be justice.”
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black gave jurors a break on Monday, and they will return to the courthouse on Tuesday.
In the meantime, Black must decide if a technology expert, Barry Davidson, will be allowed to testify for the defense.
Prosecutors are urging the judge to exclude Davidson’s testimony because defense attorneys only disclosed it a few days ago.
“The mid-trial disclosure of Dr. Davidson by the defense illustrates the very worst in trial by ambush tactics. The defense team simply withheld this information until the last possible moment in order to maximize its strategic advantage, with no regard for the court’s orders,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan wrote in a motion to exclude the testimony.
This case focuses on GE’s exclusive composite aircraft engine fan, which no other company in the world has been able to duplicate. This is the technology that prosecutors say Xu was trying to steal for China.
If Davidson is allowed to testify, he will tell the jury that, “GE’s design process is so singular and complex that one could not perfectly replicate it … that stealing files from GE’s composite program would be futile because the entire process is too difficult to replicate,” according to Mangan’s motion.
Defense attorneys have insisted that cultural differences can explain Xu’s behavior; such as using several alias names and different social media and email addresses.
If jurors convict Xu, experts say it could have wide-reaching consequences for U.S.-China relations.