Gregg Bergersen was a Navy veteran who liked to gamble on occasion but spent far more time worrying about how to earn serious money after he left his career as an analyst at the US Defense Department.
At 51 and supporting a wife and a child in the Virginia suburbs, he wondered how he could get himself cast in that distinctly Washington role that many Pentagon types dream of: a rewarding post-retirement perch at one of the hundreds of military-related companies that surround the capital and flourish off lucrative government contracts and contacts.
Bergersen believed he had found what he was seeking when he was introduced to Kuo Tai-shen (郭台生), a native of Taiwan, who had lived in New Orleans for more than 30 years. Kuo, an entrepreneur who imported furniture from China, was active enough in civic affairs to have been named to a state advisory board on international trade. He told Bergersen that he was developing a defense consulting company.
Bergersen was sentenced to 57 months in prison on Friday, while Kuo and a third accomplice are awaiting sentencing in a federal court for their involvement in one of many cases brought in the last year involving the illegal transfer of information to China.
The cases have intensified the evaluation in intelligence and law enforcement circles about the breadth of the threat from Beijing. Many have been similar to the one involving Bergersen, in that prosecutors describe them as carefully planned intelligence operations run by the Chinese government intended to steal national security secrets. Other cases, however, are less clear in their nature; some seem to be closer to violations of commercial export laws, with the transferred information designed to provide Chinese companies with a technological benefit.
Court papers and interviews indicate that Kuo and his Chinese handlers ran what intelligence professionals call a “false flag” operation on Bergersen, a weapons systems analyst, making him believe that the information he was providing was going to Taiwan, a US ally, and not to Beijing.
Nonetheless, surveillance tapes made by the FBI showed that Bergersen understood he was engaged in a serious crime.
While sitting in a rental car on July 10 last year, Bergersen pleaded with Kuo not to tell anyone that he was the source of the information he was providing, which included anticipated US arms sales to Taiwan.
“I’d get fired for sure on that,” he said. “Well, not even get fired, go to [expletive] jail.”
While Bergersen may have convinced himself that the offense was attenuated because the information was going to Taiwan, the recordings show he took the risk mainly because Kuo regularly dangled a promise that he would eventually take him in as a partner in a defense consulting firm after he retired from the Pentagon and pay him US$300,000 to US$400,000 a year. In the meanwhile, Kuo gave him small gifts and took him to Las Vegas, where he treated him to expensive shows and paid for his wagering, all of which were observed by FBI agents.
Beyond the case of Bergersen, prosecutors in the last year brought about a dozen cases involving China’s efforts to obtain military-grade accelerometers — used to make smart bombs — defense information about Taiwan, US warship technology, night-vision technology and refinements to make missiles more difficult to detect.