How a networking immigrant became a spy
Monday, May 9, 2011
Locked in a federal penitentiary in the Arizona desert, Tai Kuo spends his days helping with the cooking, teaching language classes and tennis, making new friends.
The convicted spy, it seems, has become a mentor.
This surprises no one. Not the prosecutors who charged him. Not his old friends or colleagues, some of whom stand behind him still.
Because Tai Kuo is nothing if not likable. It’s the very quality that allowed him to get close to people in high places.
His attorney, Plato Cacheris, says, “We have represented over the years a lot of scoundrels.” But Kuo, “You always wanted to help him, if you will.”
He wasn’t a professional agent by any means. He was a tennis coach. A restaurateur. A businessman who lived with his wife and daughter in a Louisiana town known for swamp tours and charter fishing.
And yet his journey from entrepreneur to secret operative — one of dozens convicted in the last three years of efforts to pass secrets or restricted technology to the Chinese — is, in many ways, emblematic of the way China conducts espionage in the 21st century, experts say.
It is rooted in opportunity, nurtured by perseverance, sustained by greed. It relies on “guanxi” — a you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours notion of developing close relationships.
The Chinese took advantage of all of these things to cultivate Kuo, and then the man with the winning personality went to work on their behalf. In the end, Kuo would convince two U.S. government employees to give him secret information, which he then conveyed to an official with the communist nation.
His networking skill would make Kuo wealthy, a shining immigrant success story, but it would also make him a convicted felon — a man denounced by a bitter ex-friend as “worse than a thief ... a traitor.”
Even in his youth, Kuo (pronounced gwoh) knew how to forge connections with people who mattered. In his early 20s, still living in his native Taiwan, he worked as a tennis instructor for the U.S. Embassy in Taipei. He soon landed in Cajun country in 1973, attending Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., on a tennis scholarship.
Southern Louisiana became his home. Kuo graduated with a degree in business administration and accounting, married a woman from Taiwan, became a U.S. citizen and settled with his wife in Houma, La. He ran a tennis club, taught Chinese cooking lessons and oversaw the restaurant at the Houma country club before launching his own high-end Chinese eatery — “Mr. Tai’s” — in New Orleans.
In the late 1980s, with China growing more open to foreign investments, Kuo started a business working to market American expertise and products there. He teamed with a Louisiana legislator to sell cotton and promoted oil service companies for exploration work in the South China Sea.
“He was the matchmaker,” says David Crais, former chairman of the Louisiana Imports and Exports Trust Authority, to which Kuo was appointed in 1992. “He was a wheeler-dealer kind of guy who had major contacts.”
Crais recalls Kuo promising potential clients, “I’ll get you in China,” and he knew how to do it.
“He used to say there’s a billion people, but there’s a very small group that runs the whole show. If you tapped into the power networks, that’s where you got business done.”
Apparently, the center of Kuo’s power network was a man named Lin Hong.
A friend introduced the two, telling Kuo, “He’s a good person to know,” someone who could help potential North American investors in China.
Hong, according to court papers, worked for the Guangdong Friendship Association, one of many groups in China whose stated aims are to promote good relations with foreign countries and organizations. The association is backed by the Chinese government and hosts visits for private individuals and businesspeople. But foreign researchers have also tied the friendship groups to present-day efforts to collect intelligence.
Guangdong association did not immediately respond to queries about whether it has ever employed a Lin Hong.
As Kuo’s travel to China increased, he’d stop in the province of Guangdong and meet with Hong.
“Lin always was very, very (interested) about ... the attitude of U.S. government to Chinese, the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan ...,” Kuo would later testify.
Kuo considered Hong a friend. However, U.S. investigators say Hong was Kuo’s “handler,” who for years tasked Kuo with gathering information from contacts in the U.S. government.
It started with a request for “opinion papers.” Hong knew that Kuo was tight with various politicians and government officials. He wondered if Kuo could find someone to write papers to help him better understand U.S. attitudes toward China.
Kuo turned to a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel named Jim Fondren, who was from Houma and had gotten to know Kuo through the country club. Fondren’s area of expertise was Asia, after having worked doing strategic planning for the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), the senior U.S. military authority in the Asia-Pacific region.
Sometime around 1997, Kuo approached Fondren about writing papers for Hong, whom he described, at Hong’s suggestion, as working at an academic entity in Hong Kong.
Fondren received anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,500 for his papers. He was also treated to a trip to China, where he, Kuo, Hong and Hong’s boss played golf and took a boat trip.
Kuo, meanwhile, was currying favor with Hong, who he hoped would help him land a project in China. Kuo would later acknowledge his own motivation: “Just pure and simple greed.”
Then something happened that gave Hong more leverage over Kuo. Around 2002, some Chinese engineers who worked with Kuo on a project in Taiwan were arrested upon their return to China and accused of espionage. Kuo turned to Hong to help get them out of prison.
After that, Kuo would say later, Hong got more pushy.
“‘You go to Washington more often,”’ he testified Hong demanded, and the things he wanted were sometimes “very sensitive.”
And as Hong put more pressure on Kuo, Kuo put more pressure on Fondren — who, as it happened, had returned to work with the U.S. government in 2001. He was based inside the Pentagon as the deputy director of the Washington liaison office of PACOM, a position that granted him “Top Secret” security clearance.
Fondren continued to produce opinion papers about such topics as talks between the Department of Defense and China’s People’s Liberation Army and a joint exercise conducted between the U.S. and Chinese navies. One paper incorporated information from a Department of Defense report classified as “confidential.”
Fondren also provided various publications, including a draft copy of an annual Defense report on the People’s Liberation Army.
To help convince Fondren to keep giving him information, Kuo — at Hong’s suggestion — told him his papers were now going to government officials in Taiwan rather than to Hong.
Kuo would use the same approach in wooing a second tipster.
The FBI videotape shows the inside of a rental car, with Kuo in the passenger seat. He pulls out a wad of cash and then stuffs the money into the shirt pocket of the driver, Gregg Bergersen, and the two proceed to talk business.
“Now, the other information ... I’m very, very, very, very reticent to let you have it because it’s all classified ...,” Bergersen tells him. “But I will let you see it and you can take all the notes you want. ... But if it ever fell into the wrong hands, and I know it’s not going to ... then I would be fired for sure. I’d go to jail, because I violated all the rules.”
They stop for lunch, and Bergersen hands Kuo a thick document. For an hour Kuo takes notes from the document, which details the quantity, dollar value and names of weapons systems planned for sale by the United States to Taiwan for five years.
It was July 14, 2007, and Kuo was on one of his many information-gathering trips to Washington, D.C.
Bergersen worked as a weapon systems policy analyst at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, an arm of the Department of Defense that facilitates military sales overseas. His specialty was C4ISR, a sophisticated military command, control and communications network.
As one of his many business enterprises, Kuo was pursuing contracts with Taiwan related to its version of C4ISR. By 2004, he and Bergersen had formed a business relationship. Bergersen wanted to promote C4ISR in Taiwan and believed Kuo could help. The two would go to dinner, with Kuo picking up the tab. They discussed going into business upon Bergersen’s retirement, and Kuo promised a job with a six-figure salary. They traveled to Las Vegas, and Kuo gave Bergersen gambling money and show tickets.
In return, Bergersen supplied Kuo with classified information related to C4ISR and other U.S. defense technology and communications systems, which Kuo then gave to Hong.
Kuo began using encryption software to send e-mails and also enlisted a “cutout” — a young woman who had worked with him in the furniture import business and with whom he began having an affair — to sometimes serve as a go-between with him and Hong.
To avoid detection, Hong suggested that Kuo buy prepaid phone cards and use public telephones. He wanted him to change his e-mail addresses often, mail documents to him from the airport or another public location. For the most part, Kuo ignored his advice.
He’d later testify: “I didn’t think I can get caught.”
But FBI agents had stumbled upon Lin Hong’s name in a separate investigation of a California engineer who illegally exported military technology to China. Investigative work in that case led to Kuo, and agents began planting recording devices in his rental cars and watching his Internet activity. They also bugged Fondren’s home, and watched Bergersen.
On Feb. 11, 2008 — almost two decades after first meeting Lin Hong — Kuo was arrested and charged with espionage.
Quickly pleading guilty, he began cooperating with the government.
He testified against his old friend Fondren, helping convict him of communicating classified information to an agent of a foreign government and making false statements to the FBI.
On the stand, Fondren himself said: “I had no idea that the guy that I thought was one of my best friends, one of the great American success stories, was worse than a thief. He’s a traitor to this country. ... I’m the first to salute the government for getting him.”
Sentenced in 2010 to three years, Fondren remains in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He did not respond to written requests to be interviewed.
Bergersen, who was arrested the same day as Kuo, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to communicate national defense information and was sentenced to almost five years in prison, although he is scheduled to be released to home confinement in Texas by the end of June. He maintains that he did not act for financial gain but rather to help promote the defense system he’d spent years working on.
“I deluded myself into believing it was acceptable to act illegally for good results,” Bergersen said in a written testimonial forwarded to The Associated Press by his cousin. “I know now that I was not deceived by Kuo’s lies and deceptions but by my own sins.”
In the end, the information Fondren and Bergersen passed to Kuo caused little or no harm to national security, their sentencing judges determined. But that does little to minimize Kuo’s actions in the eyes of his family or former friends. His wife divorced him, and his daughter won’t speak to him, according to friends.
“I don’t know what happened to Tai, other than he was the victim of my invincibility theory,” says Danny Lirette, a Houma attorney who remains close to Kuo and speaks with him regularly. (Kuo declined to be interviewed by the AP.) “I see all these people who become very powerful and accumulate wealth and are surrounded by people who tell them how great they are. They think they can do whatever they want. That’s when they fall to the bottom.”
Initially, Kuo was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison, but that was reduced last summer to five years — thanks to his cooperation with authorities. Lirette says he could be released to a halfway house by the end of this year, and that he’ll find a way to start again.
“He’s going to be fine,” says Lirette. “He’ll have some struggles. But Tai ... he doesn’t give up.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story is based on interviews with Justice Department officials, Kuo’s attorneys and friends, and a review of court documents in the Kuo, Bergersen and Fondren cases, including testimony at Fondren’s trial.
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at email@example.com.