WASHINGTON — A United States Army reservist from China was arrested Tuesday on allegations of secretly providing information about American defense contractor employees to a Chinese intelligence officer, law enforcement officials said. The Chinese government was trying to recruit them as informants, they said.
The suspect, Ji Chaoqun, 27, was arrested in Chicago, where he attended graduate school before joining the Army Reserves, and charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.
Mr. Ji’s handler at a regional arm of China’s Ministry of State Security, which collects domestic and foreign intelligence, was also arrested, according to an F.B.I. affidavit. The officer, identified only as Intelligence Officer A, was arrested sometime before April. It is not clear where he was arrested or by whom.
An F.B.I. arrest of a Chinese intelligence officer would send a strong signal to China that American counterintelligence agents are keenly focused on its activities in the United States. Such an arrest would also be an embarrassment to Chinese intelligence, revealing sloppy tradecraft and exposing operations in the United States.
“By collecting this information for an arm of the Chinese government while in the United States, Ji knowingly and unlawfully acted as an agent of a foreign power,” Andrew K. McKay, an F.B.I. special agent, wrote in the affidavit.
No lawyer was listed for Mr. Ji in court papers.
Chinese espionage has been one of the top concerns for the Justice Department’s national security division and the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence division. The Justice Department has also cracked down on FARA violations, most prominently the convictions of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, for his work consulting for the pro-Russia former president of Ukraine.
Mr. Ji, who was born in Beijing, met three Chinese intelligence officers while he was still a student in China. Using an alias, his primary handler posed as a professor, and the men said they were members of a confidential unit and made oblique references to spycraft, according to court papers.
The Ministry of State Security has maintained a large network of intelligence gatherers inside and outside China. Some harvest information overtly through their positions as attachés and academics, and others secretly as spies.
It is unusual for the regional department of the M.S.S., Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, to run an operative in the United States, former officials said.
Mr. Ji arrived in the United States on a student visa in August 2013 to earn his master’s degree in electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. During his time in school, he traveled to China three times and met with his M.S.S. contact. Once they met at a hotel and another time at the local State Security office.
Before Mr. Ji graduated in 2015, his contact asked him to buy background check data on eight naturalized American citizens who were born in Taiwan or China. They all worked in, or had recently retired from, jobs in the science and technology industry. Several specialized in the aerospace industry, and seven had worked for defense contractors, law enforcement officials said.
“They just wanted me to purchase some documents on their behalf,” Mr. Ji told the F.B.I. of his handlers, adding that they had told him that making the payments for the reports from China would be too onerous.
The F.B.I. contends that the M.S.S. was “testing Ji’s skills as a potential asset by tasking him to purchase these background check reports.”
Mr. Ji emailed the files to his handler and called them “midterm test questions.”
He also asked an engineer to provide him with technical information from an unnamed aircraft engine supplier, a defense contractor that does aviation research for the military. He then provided the information to the Chinese government.
After graduating in 2015, Mr. Ji enlisted in the Army Reserves in the spring of 2016 under a program that allows immigrants to qualify for American citizenship in exchange for serving in the military.
As part of his application, Mr. Ji lied about his contacts with Chinese intelligence officials, according to court documents.