LOS ANGELES - A native of the People's Republic of China (PRC), who became a naturalized United States citizen, pleaded guilty this afternoon to three federal charges related to a plot to procure and export thermal-imaging cameras to the People's Republic of China without obtaining the necessary licenses.
Tah Wei Chao, 52, of, Beijing, China, pleaded guilty to three felony counts: conspiracy, and two counts of exporting and/or attempting to export restricted items. The charges are the result of an investigation by the newly-formed Export and Anti-proliferation Global Law Enforcement (EAGLE) Task Force which involves several federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The charges against Chao stem from the discovery of 10 cameras concealed in luggage destined for China in April 2008 and three cameras shipped to China in October 2007. The export of the thermal-imaging cameras to China are controlled by the Department of Commerce for national security and regional stability reasons because of their use in a wide variety of civilian and military applications. The thermal-imaging cameras can be used to observe things not otherwise visible to the naked eye.
Also charged in the case is Zhi Yong Guo, 49, a Chinese national also from Beijing, who still faces two of the charges contained in the indictment.
Both Chao and Guo were charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and Export Administration Regulations for their procurement and illegal export of sensitive technology in violation of export laws.
According to a statement of facts read in court today, Chao purchased three thermal imaging cameras last fall and, through a San Gabriel printing company, arranged to have the devices shipped to the PRC without the proper licenses.
In March, Chao ordered 10 more cameras from FLIR Systems, Inc. for $53,000. Representatives from FLIR Systems repeatedly warned Chao that the cameras could not be moved outside of the United States without an export license issued by the Department of Commerce. Both Chao and Guo were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in April after authorities recovered the 10 cameras that had been hidden in their suitcases. Each of the cameras had a warning sticker stating -
"This product is an export controlled item. Authorization by the U.S. Government must be obtained prior to any shipment outside of the United States."
Chao pleaded guilty before United States District Judge John F. Walter, who is scheduled to sentence him on October 6. As a result of his guilty pleas, Chao faces a maximum statutory penalty of 60 years in federal prison.
Guo is scheduled to go on trial before Judge Walter on August 19. If he is convicted of the two charges, he faces a maximum possible penalty of 40 years.
The EAGLE task force was created by the United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of California in conjunction with federal law enforcement agencies to jointly investigate and combat the illegal exports of arms and sensitive technologies. The members of the EAGLE Task Force that participated in this investigation are: ICE, the United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export and Enforcement; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; the Diplomatic Security Service and the Transportation Security Administration.