U.S. Tech Espionage Team Unveils First Cases Involving China and Russia

The Biden administration announced arrests and criminal charges on Tuesday in five cases involving sanctions evasion and technology espionage efforts linked to Russia, China and Iran.

Two Russian nationals were taken into custody last week under accusations of sending aircraft parts to Russia in violation of sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine. In another case, a former Apple engineer is accused of stealing the company’s autonomous vehicle technology to provide it to a Chinese competitor.

The announcements were the work of a recently established “technology strike force,” which aims to protect critical American technology or data from theft by hostile nations. The strike force was set up in February and brings together agents with the Commerce and Justice Departments, as well as the F.B.I. and local attorneys offices.

Federal agents are working to trace the global movement of U.S. goods and data, as well as the funds used to pay for them. The effort seeks to crack down on the global networks that are channeling goods and technology through opaque jurisdictions and middlemen to try to circumvent sanctions and technology restrictions imposed by the United States.

In another case unveiled Tuesday, a California-based engineer is accused of trying to steal source code for advanced machinery that can be used to make parts for military submarines and aircraft to sell it to several Chinese companies.

Two other cases were announced, including charges against China-based agents who were accused of attempting to send materials used in weapons of mass destruction to Iran, according to U.S. officials, and charges involving the alleged provision of advanced technology to Russia that could be repurposed by the Russian military.

Matthew G. Olsen, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s national security division, told reporters that the cases showed the U.S. government’s ability “to accelerate investigations and surge our collective resources to defend against these threats.”

“Foreign nation states are working hard to acquire our most sensitive technologies,” said Matthew Axelrod, the assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security. “We’re working even harder to stop them.”

Oleg Patsulya and Vasilii Besedin, the two Russian nationals who were arrested last week under suspicion of trying to procure millions of dollars of prohibited parts for Russian airlines, were charged with conspiracy to violate the Export Control Reform Act and conspiracy to commit international money laundering. If convicted, they would face up to 20 years in prison for each charge.

The Commerce Department issued a temporary denial order Tuesday against the men, which prohibits them from transactions involving any U.S. products for 180 days.

The order also applies to a freight forwarder in the Maldives that the men had utilized to route shipments of prohibited products into Russia, as well as a Russian airline, Smartavia, that sought to purchase these products.

On Thursday, federal officials seized luxury goods purchased with proceeds of their scheme, a U.S. official said.

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