A former Army veteran and defense intelligence officer charged with selling American defense secrets to China once told a source who was spying on him to hide classified documents in a tree.
The FBI picked up Ron Rockwell Hansen, a former Army warrant officer and an ex-employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in Seattle on Saturday as he was attempting to board a flight to China.
The government’s complaint against Hansen alleges he sold top-secret information to the People’s Republic of China’s intelligence service — and earned more than $800,000 from his crimes.
“(Rockwell’s) alleged actions are a betrayal of our nation’s security and the American people and are an affront to his former intelligence community colleagues,” John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement. “Our intelligence professionals swear an oath to protect our country’s most closely held secrets.”
Hansen lost his top-secret clearance when he left the DIA in 2006, but he tried to regain it multiple times. He went to military intelligence conferences in the states and sold those secrets to the Chinese, prosecutors allege.
After Hansen’s time in the Army as a signal intelligence and human intel officer, the DIA hired him as a civilian contractor in 2006. He worked with the Defense Department until 2011, and until he started working with the Chinese, he had no verifiable income besides his $1,900 per month military pension.
Hansen, fluent in Mandarin and Russian, began traveling to China numerous times between 2013 and 2017. His trips coincided with large wire transfers to his bank accounts and cash deposits. He maintained an apartment in Beijing for a time, and set up a Beijing-based business, according to court documents. He had an ownership role in a number of businesses, most of which did not turn profits.
Hansen attempted on numerous occasions to get back into the intelligence community, including asking the DIA to take him back and trying to work with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He also pitched himself to the FBI as an agent embedded with Chinese intelligence, but at that point the FBI was already investigating him for espionage.
Hansen, “unaware of the pending investigation,” met with the FBI nine times in 2015, and claimed he initiated the meetings “in an attempt to offer his cooperation as a source,” according to the indictment.
Hansen told the FBI that the Chinese Ministry of State Security had offered him $300,000 to do consulting work. According to the indictment, Hansen made contact with the ministry through a business partner in Beijing, Wenhua Zhao.
Zhao told The New York Times that he was “very surprised” at the arrest, and after some vague statements said he didn’t know the Chinese intelligence officers he allegedly introduced to Hansen.
Hansen also told the FBI how during meetings at Beijing hotel lounges and tea houses, he and his contacts with the Ministry arranged to pay for his services through the sale of computer equipment.
After the court allowed the FBI to tap Hansen’s cell phone, investigators witnessed Hansen’s efforts to reestablish his access to secure information.
At the end of 2015, the FBI searched Hansen’s luggage upon his return from a trip to China and found a thumb drive hidden “behind a sock in the toe of a shoe.” That USB drive had pictures and notes from a security conference held in Washington, D.C., and had been accessed in China. Hansen also carried $53,000 in cash.
On subsequent trips to China following security conferences, authorities found other digital files on Hansen’s laptop. One file authorities discovered during a search of Hansen’s laptop was named “Notes_INSASummit2016,” apparently referring to his trip to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance conference Hansen attended earlier that year. The laptop also had cryptic notes detailing meetings with three DIA employees.
Hansen earned no less than $800,000 through cash and wire transfers through his various business entities. Whenever he was questioned about the money, he would say it was payment for resale of computer parts.
Eventually, Hansen did get a connection to secret U.S. intel through a DIA informant. But that person, whom prosecutors did not identify in court documents, was working as a confidential source for the FBI.
After a lunch meeting with two former DIA officials in Austin, Texas in 2016, Hansen told one of the persons how he hoped to work with the FBI, but “had to give the (Chinese intelligence ministry) something to keep stringing them along.” That DIA official reported Hansen’s comments, and agreed to become a confidential informant.
The informant and Hansen spoke multiple times, and Hansen eventually divulged that he attended security conferences for the Ministry and fed them information. Hansen asked his DIA source to go over some documents he had retained from his time as a contractor — which were still classified — and describe how the U.S. used the information it contained.
Between March and April of this year, Hansen and his source — who was actually an informant — discussed how to get secret information to the Chinese without detection from U.S. authorities. Hansen wanted his DIA source to provide intelligence related to the U.S. approach to North Korea.
In April, Hansen suggested the informant brief Chinese officials on the United States’ “China ops plan” and discussed what sort of things the Chinese would be interested in. Hansen said the Ministry would pay $200,000 for the right intelligence.
Hansen planned to travel to China May 31, but delayed his trip so he could meet with his source during his layover in Seattle. At that fateful meeting, the informant said he had information to show Hansen, and the two drove to a location near the airport.
According to prosecutors, the informant had secret documents, marked appropriately, in a “concealment device” — which at first, Hansen could not open. The informant opened the device, and Hansen looked them over. Hansen took notes on the documents and said he would convey the information to the Chinese, and over a two-hour conversation discussed their meaning and how they would be useful to the Ministry of State Security.
Hansen suggested ways of transmitting documents to China in the future, including scanning documents into digital files, and suggested the informant “cut a hole in a nearby tree and hide materials in that location.” Hansen told the informant that the Chinese wouldn’t pay him this trip, but he could get money for his source on a later trip in June.
After the meeting, the informant dropped Hansen off and the FBI arrested the suspect by the pedestrian bridge to the airport.
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