Aeroflex exported more than half of those chips even after US officials had directed it to stop doing so.
The company declined to comment. However, documents show two mitigating factors — Aeroflex voluntarily disclosed the transgressions, and it blamed them in part on misreading complex and sometimes competing US Commerce Department and State Department regulations.
Even so, State Department regulators would ultimately conclude: “The exports directly supported Chinese satellites and military aircraft, and caused harm to US national security.”
Thus, if the HSI agents wanted to attempt a sting against the man in Oakland, they would have to trust a company that had admitted aiding a potential enemy on a much larger scale.
On July 28, 2011, a federal agent posing as a Federal Express driver arrived at He’s office building in Oakland. The agent handed He’s wife a package containing the first order, 112 rad-chips. She leaned it against a wall.
The undercover agent wore a hidden camera that recorded the office’s interior. The place had sleeping bags and mattresses on the floor. There was no satellite research equipment.
The agent departed, but not before leaving a tiny surveillance device.
For the next five weeks, the device indicated that the box did not move. Agents also put a camera outside the office door, placed a keystroke-logger on He’s computer and monitored his movements based on his cellphone location. They placed his name on an automated watch list at airports and border crossings.
However, they did not have the manpower to tail him. He slipped out of the country on Sept. 6, 2011, taking a flight to San Diego and driving across the border at Tijuana.
The agents received an automated security alert only the following day, Sept. 7, 2011. They also learned that He was booked on a flight from Tijuana to Shanghai that evening. It was too late. They had missed him.
Was China about to receive 112 military-grade microchips for its space program? There was no way to know for sure.
The agents had two options: Drop the case, or send He the second batch of chips and try to catch him exporting those.
On Oct. 6, 2011, an undercover agent helped FedEx deliver the second shipment, 200 radiation-hardened chips. Once again, the agents waited and watched.
When two months passed with no indication that He had moved the microchips, Slavens sought the sneak-and-peak warrant.
The late night search, on Dec. 4, 2011, turned up empty boxes. Slavens then sought a warrant for He’s home and renewed the airport and border look-outs.
On the morning of Dec. 10, 2011, — before the agents could complete the search warrants — the smuggler surprised them again.
An agent noticed He’s cellphone on the move, far south of Oakland, heading toward Los Angeles — presumably to Tijuana again, and then on to China. Slavens scrambled Homeland Security Investigations agents near Los Angeles.
The LA agents followed the cell-tracker to a Best Western hotel south of the city. In the early evening, they located He’s car in the hotel parking lot. They confirmed that He had checked in, and they settled in for surveillance.
At about 8:45am on Dec. 11, 2011, He left his hotel room with an unidentified traveling companion and pulled his car onto Interstate 110, driving south. Tijuana was two hours away. The HSI agents planned to stop him at the Mexico border.