Dickson Yeo still supportive of China despite guilty plea to spying

Dickson Yeo, the Singaporean who pleaded guilty to spying for China in the United States, said at his sentencing hearing yesterday that he was still supportive of China.

“I am sympathetic to China’s position, but it was not my intention to harm anyone,” said Yeo, 39, who received 14 months in jail. “All I want to do is to go home to my family.”

He said he took full responsibility for his actions and thanked the US government for showing professionalism when handling his case.

“But I am still sympathetic to the Chinese cause,” he said. “There is a general feeling in China that the US is out to, sort of, bleed China dry.”

District Judge Tanya Chutkan said that despite Yeo’s suspicions of the US, he had been afforded the full panoply of rights and due process, including access to a defence lawyer.

“You are not being punished for your thoughts or for your political beliefs,” she said. “I would note that you have been treated in a way that exhibits the best of our system.”

Yeo has been in a Washington jail since he was arrested last November, and these 11 months in jail will be credited towards his sentence, said Judge Chutkan.

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 16 months in the light of Yeo’s cooperation with the authorities, while Yeo’s lawyer asked for a sentence of time served, which would have worked out to approximately 13 months, including the time it would take for him to be removed from the US.

It is unclear when he will be deported from the US.

“He did not betray Singapore and he does not bear any malice towards the United States or any US citizens. He was deeply attracted to China and its ability to uplift millions from poverty with industrial policy, which led him to be easily influenced,” his lawyer Michelle Peterson said in court documents seen by The Straits Times.

In July, Yeo pleaded guilty to acting under the direction of Chinese intelligence officials to obtain sensitive information from American citizens.

Then a PhD student at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Yeo used social media to target American military and government employees who had access to sensitive information and persuaded them to write reports for cash.

Unbeknownst to them and for at least four years from 2015 to last year, Yeo would pass these reports to his handlers in the Chinese intelligence services.

Asking for leniency in sentencing, Yeo’s lawyer said he was very remorseful, had immediately accepted responsibility for his conduct and held nothing back from the US authorities.

“He deeply regrets having gotten caught up in the swirl of satisfying Chinese intelligence requirements and compromising his own integrity,” she added.

Yeo suffers from high blood pressure and anxiety, as well as depression and post traumatic stress disorder stemming from his national service in Singapore, said his lawyer.

He was also lonely, broke and floundering academically when he was recruited by Chinese intelligence services, she added.

“The Chinese gave him more respect and dignity for the work he was doing than he was able to obtain from his efforts at academia,” she said, adding that Yeo acknowledged he was vulnerable.

Yeo’s professional reputation is now in ruins and he will have difficulty even securing basic employment in Singapore, she said.

“He wants nothing more than to return to a quiet life with his parents,” she added.

Prosecutors said that Yeo’s conduct was serious and warranted a significant sentence.

They argued that he was preparing to obtain classified information when he was arrested, and that his work for Chinese intelligence services was not a one-off lapse in judgment.

“The threat posed by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is grave and long term. Defendant Yeo willingly became a part of that threat,” they said, noting that his work for Beijing came within the larger context of China’s ongoing theft of information from the US.

“He understands that China seeks to diminish US influence in the world. Indeed, the defendant has admitted that he was motivated by a desire to help China do just that,” they said.

“He used the tradecraft of espionage, and he exploited the openness of American society and the Internet,” they added.

However, they also acknowledged that he pleaded guilty early in the case and cooperated with the US government.

How spy was arrested

Court documents revealed that Singaporean spy for China Dickson Yeo agreed to be interviewed by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, choosing not to board a plane that could have gotten him out of the US scot-free.

District Judge Tanya Chutkan said Yeo’s actions showed a desire to come clean, which she factored into his sentence of 14 months.

“You did not take the avenue of escape you may have been afforded. You changed your mind and decided to speak with the agent, and shortly after, without the benefit of counsel, you confessed,” she said at Yeo’s sentencing hearing at a federal court yesterday.

“Ever since that time, you have done everything to try and make good and make up for your actions,” she added. “It is one thing to do something wrong, but it is another thing to make right.”

Prosecutors said that Yeo had been initially interviewed by border agents when he entered the country via the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last Nov 6. He did not reveal then that he was working for Chinese intelligence services.

However, he did tell the officers that he had met civil servants and diplomats to write papers about how China treats smaller strategic states such as Singapore and South Korea, adding that some of his work could be considered “borderline corporate espionage”.

After the interview, Yeo deleted the WeChat app he had used to communicate with his Chinese handlers from his mobile phone and booked a flight out of the United States the next day.

On Nov 7, he returned to the airport, where he was approached by FBI agents, who asked him for a voluntary interview.

Although he initially declined to be interviewed and went to board his flight, Yeo changed his mind, returned to the FBI agents and agreed to be interviewed, according to court documents.

Yeo was forthcoming about his activities and admitted that he was working for Chinese intelligence. He agreed to continue meeting the FBI after that interview.

He was arrested and taken into custody the next day, on Nov 8.

Arguing for a lighter sentence, Yeo’s lawyer Michelle Peterson pointed out that he agreed to subject himself to the US legal system, even though he was completely free to board a plane and leave the country without repercussion.

“When he was approached at the airport, he was free to leave. Nevertheless, he agreed instead to be debriefed by the agents. He deplaned when he did not have to do so, and fully debriefed,” she said in court documents.

This, she said, was an “exceptional level of acceptance of responsibility and genuine showing of remorse”.

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