The 27-year-old Chinese national Ji Chaoqun arrived in Chicago on an F-1 student visa in 2013 to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve under Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), a program that allows certain nonimmigrants to enlist and gain immigrant status and eventual citizenship. But long before Chaoqun received the F-1 student visa, he was clandestinely feeding sensitive U.S. defense information to Chinese intelligence services, prosecutors allege in a 2018 indictment. This circumstance could have been uncovered in November 2016, during at least the second of three U.S. security vetting opportunities associated with Chaoqun’s applications to stay in the United States. Catching him at these points would have shaved up to two years from the time he was able to steal defense-related technology research.
State Department officers responsible for initial visa security vetting on the F-1 application in China would not be expected to uncover clandestine espionage activity with ordinary checks, since spies are trained to avoid detection, though it is possible checks with U.S. and allied counter-intelligence services might well have flagged Chaoqun as the Chinese agent he was.
Though such a discovery would qualify as a long shot, American authorities would have had a good chance to discover Chaoqun’s true mission when he asserted in a November 2016 Optional Practical Training (OPT) application – a post-university type of temporary work authorization – that he was going to work for a company that never actually hired him.
Vetting of OPT applications are not routine, though it could and arguably should happen for certain nationalities.
Had USCIS reviewers in Illinois completed basic verification checks on the OPT application, they likely would have discovered that he lied about having this job opportunity. That discovery would almost certainly have ended Chaoqun’s depredations inside the United States and may well also have unraveled his espionage mission earlier than it was, as well.
In 2018, federal authorities eventually did find out about the espionage and charged Chaoqun with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires individuals working for foreign governments to register with the U.S. attorney general.
The investigation showed the Chinese agent worked undercover from at least August 28, 2013, to or about September 2018 providing information to Chinese intelligence such as background checks on eight American citizens, including U.S. defense contractors.
Because the 2016 OPT fraud initially went undiscovered, Chaoqun instead was free to join the U.S. Army Reserves under MAVNI.
The intensive MAVNI security vetting process, done by the Department of Defense, likewise missed the OPT fraud and his intelligence work, a second reasonable opportunity to discover Chaoqun’s national security depredations. The FBI caught on to him from other related investigations.
In September 2018, the FBI arrested Chaoqun and charged him with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, wire fraud, and making false statements to government agencies. In February 2023, a federal judge sentenced Chaoqun to 96 months in prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States, lying to federal officials, and impersonating agents of foreign governments.