How a Networking Immigrant Became a Spy

Pauline Arrillaga, San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 2011

Locked in a federal penitentiary in the Arizona desert, Tai Kuo spends his days helping with the cooking, teaching language classes and tennis, making new friends.

The convicted spy, it seems, has become a mentor.

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He wasn’t a professional agent by any means. He was a tennis coach. A restaurateur. A businessman who lived with his wife and daughter in a Louisiana town known for swamp tours and charter fishing. Born in Taiwan, son-in-law of a senior military officer there, he was an unlikely spy for China if ever there was one.

And yet his journey from entrepreneur to secret operative–one of dozens convicted in the last three years of efforts to pass secrets or restricted technology to the Chinese–is, in many ways, emblematic of the way China conducts espionage in the 21st century, experts say.

It is rooted in opportunity, nurtured by perseverance, sustained by greed. It relies on “guanxi”–a you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours notion of developing close relationships.

The Chinese took advantage of all of these things to cultivate Kuo, and then the man with the winning personality went to work on their behalf. In the end, Kuo would convince two U.S. government employees to give him secret information, which he then conveyed to an official with the communist nation.

His networking skill would make Kuo wealthy, a shining immigrant success story, but it would also make him a convicted felon–a man denounced by a bitter ex-friend as “worse than a thief . . . a traitor.”

Even in his youth, Kuo (pronounced gwoh) knew how to forge connections with people who mattered. In his early 20s, still living in his native Taiwan, he worked as a tennis instructor for the U.S. Embassy in Taipei. He soon obtained a student visa and landed in Cajun country in 1973, attending Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., on a tennis scholarship.

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The late 1980s saw his circle of connections widen. With China growing more open to foreign investments, Kuo started a business working to market American expertise and products there. He teamed with a Louisiana legislator to sell cotton, promoted oil service companies for exploration work in the South China Sea, provided engineers for the development of Chinese plants.

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Apparently, the center of Kuo’s power network was a man named Lin Hong.

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Hong, according to court papers, worked for the Guangdong Friendship Association, one of many groups in China whose stated aims are to promote good relations with foreign countries and organizations. The association is backed by the Chinese government and hosts visits for private individuals and businesspeople. But foreign researchers have also tied the friendship groups to present-day efforts to collect intelligence.

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Kuo considered Hong a friend, at least at first. However, U.S. investigators use a different description. Hong, they say, was Kuo’s “handler,” who for years tasked Kuo with gathering information from contacts he’d made in the U.S. government.

It started with a request for “opinion papers.” Hong knew that Kuo was tight with various politicians and government officials. He wondered if Kuo could find someone to write papers to help him better understand U.S. attitudes toward China.

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Kuo, meanwhile, was currying favor with Hong, who he hoped would help him land a project in China. Kuo would later acknowledge his own motivation: “Just pure and simple greed.”

Then something happened that gave Hong more leverage over Kuo. Around 2002, some Chinese engineers who worked with Kuo on a project in Taiwan were arrested upon their return to China and accused of espionage. Kuo turned to Hong to help get them out of prison.

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The FBI videotape shows the inside of a rental car, with Kuo in the passenger seat. He pulls out a wad of cash, the outer bill being a $100 note. Then Kuo stuffs the money into the shirt pocket of the driver, Gregg Bergersen, and the two proceed to talk business.

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The two then stop for lunch, and Bergersen hands Kuo a thick document with cut marks at the top and bottom of each page; he explains that he’s removed the classification markings. For an hour at the restaurant, Kuo takes notes from the document, which details the quantity, dollar value and names of weapons systems planned for sale by the United States to Taiwan for five years.

It was July 14, 2007, and Kuo was on one of his many information-gathering trips to Washington, D.C. It had been a decade since he started passing information to China.

Bergersen worked as a weapon systems policy analyst at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, an arm of the Department of Defense that facilitates military sales overseas. His specialty was C4ISR, a sophisticated military command, control and communications network.

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Kuo began using encryption software to send e-mails and also enlisted a “cutout”–a young woman who had worked with him in the furniture import business and with whom he began having an affair–to sometimes serve as a go-between with him and Hong.

To avoid detection, Hong suggested that Kuo buy prepaid phone cards and use public telephones. He wanted him to change his e-mail addresses often, mail documents to him from the airport or another public location. For the most part, Kuo ignored his advice.

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On Feb. 11, 2008–almost two decades after first meeting Lin Hong–Kuo was arrested and charged with espionage.

Quickly pleading guilty, he began cooperating with the government.

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Bergersen, who was arrested the same day as Kuo, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to communicate national defense information and was sentenced to almost five years in prison, although he is scheduled to be released to home confinement in Texas by the end of June. He maintains that he did not act for financial gain but rather to help promote the defense system he’d spent years working on.

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Initially, Kuo was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison, but that was reduced last summer to five years–thanks to his cooperation with authorities. Lirette says he could be released to a halfway house by the end of this year, and that he’ll find a way to start again.

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  • BannerRWB

    He is correct: “Just pure and simple greed”. To view this on a national scale, Khrushchev was right, in that our greed (First Slave and now immigrant labor) will kill us; Khrushchev was just a little ahead of his time. For the context of this article, our greed for immigrants of all kinds led to us bringing this person here.. and we see what that got us, another nail in the coffin of America.

  • Anonymous

    It would be easier to count the Chinese living out of China who are not spies. East Asians can get away with spying for so long because they are looked at like good students, “they would never do anything wrong.” In reality, East Asians do not respect the laws/ rules in white countries, most East Asians see white people as dumb slobs, and race is always at the forefront of East Asians agenda.

  • Anonymous

    I’m at least glad he’s out of Cajun country now

  • Anonymous

    “Just pure and simple greed” … “He maintains that he did not act for financial gain” – this story can’t keep its own story straight. And a sob story for a traitor to his own country (that is, Taiwan, by telling China about the military equipment it’s getting from the the US) who only got 5 years in a prison with *tennis*?

    And what a joke of a sob story: “Tai Kuo spends his days helping with the cooking, teaching language classes and tennis, making new friends.” Let me translate this to English for you: Tai Kuo is in a cushy paradise of a prison, doing prison work, and teaching Chinese. “Making new friends”… is the article *trying* to be ridiculed? Why else would anyone say that?

    By the way, here’s the prison experience of Le-a Willams: “Le-a spends her days helping with license plates, engagingly instructing other ladies on various aspects of interpersonal etiquette, maintaining her personal fitness, and making new friends.” What fun.

  • joe

    Many many more Chinese are getting in on the spying bonanza due to the very light sentences they are getting when caught. Anticipate this happening more and more. Surely most of them will never get caught.

    The above comment about what East Asians think about whites (and others also) is very accurate. Most do have a superiority complex and look at us with quiet contempt. They do get good grades in school and believe this is what makes them better. Who knows- perhaps so? At least they tend to keep that to themselves – which is the good part. Wonder who they think initiated modern science, living and technology? I suppose that question may upset their strong beliefs in themselves.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not that the treachery has no limits in immigrants to our shores. Study after study has shown that, both to the Chinese government and to the ‘temporary workers’ whom they instantly convert to spies, first loyalty is always to a Chinese identity.

    It never fades.

    No, what is essentially to understand here is the depth of venality in our own white corporate leaders, hell bent on sending every R&D job overseas with the same hysterical abandonment as they have already delivered up manufacturing and professional/office classes.

    Google it-

    http://goo.gl/pE94W

    There are hundreds of articles. This is how you break a society as a race. By exploiting their very gullibility in class-eliteness, thinking that ‘nothing but another American (high class white) can compete with -their- position and no American Gentleman ever would…’.

    Because the false assumption is that nobody would undercut their own social hierarchy by selling -out-, overseas, the kinds of capabilities that make us unique.

    And that is just not true.

    Once you make a people embarrassed about their enormous stature as a race, there is no cohesion left to justify continuity as a society. And so there is no guilt in making a one-generation profit selling all of us out.

    This man is -not- a traitor. Because he never likely considered himself anything but Asian as Chinese (ROC or PRC, it doesn’t matter).

    Our people are the ones doing damage beyond any repair. And they now KNOW that they are doing it to the one country where the rule of law might otherwise shelter and preserve their culture.

    Because nobody else’ racial homelands ever will. This is the ultimate stupidity of Elite treachery. There is no post racial attitude ANYWHERE BUT HERE. And here it is entirely artificial in it’s engineered reality.