SALT LAKE CITY — A retired Army officer from Utah admitted Friday to spying and selling classified national defense information to China for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ron Rockwell Hansen, 59, of Syracuse, pleaded guilty to attempting to gather or deliver defense information as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors. The charge carries a term of life in prison, but prosecutors agreed to recommend a 15-year sentence.
"Today, a Utahn was convicted for spying on behalf of a foreign nation. Those are words that we've never uttered here on the courthouse plaza," Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber said after the hearing. "What should be sacrosanct in our character as Americans is this: We do not betray our country."
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson scheduled a sentencing hearing for Sept. 24. Hansen remains behind bars in the Salt Lake County Jail.
Hansen was originally charged with attempting to gather or deliver defense information; being an unregistered agent of a foreign government; three counts of bulk cash smuggling; eight counts of structuring money transactions and two counts of smuggling goods from the United States.
The charge he pleaded to stems from his arrest in Seattle as he was preparing to board a flight to China last June with classified information. But Hansen admitted to much more in the plea agreement.
Hansen retired from the Army as a warrant officer with a background in signals intelligence and human intelligence. The Defense Intelligence Agency hired him as a civilian intelligence case officer in 2006. He held a top secret clearance for many years, and signed several non-disclosure agreements during his time at the agency and as a government contractor. He speaks fluent Mandarin-Chinese and Russian
Authorities say Hansen was motivated by money.
"There were some debts on Mr. Hansen’s behalf that ultimately probably prodded him into this life," said Tyler Hatcher, IRS Criminal Investigations assistant special agent in charge.
Court records show Hansen had built up about $200,000 in personal debt since 2012, the charges state. And his business, Nuvestack — a company that provided cloud computing information technology services — reported more than $1 million in losses in 2014, and failed to file taxes in 2015 and 2016, the charges state.
Hatcher described Hansen as a "soft target" for recruitment by the Chinese and that they often go after someone in debt.
"He was not someone that was recruited in a hard environment. He was recruited while he was working and he decided to go down the wrong path, and that’s unfortunate," said Paul Haertel, FBI special agent in charge in Salt Lake City.
Huber said China is making a sophisticated effort to steal U.S. secrets, and Hansen's case "shows us surprisingly in Utah the extend of their reach."
Hansen admitted in the plea agreement that agents of a Chinese intelligence agency targeted him in 2014 and began meeting regularly in China to find out what kind of information the agency wanted.
"During the course of my relationship with Chinese intelligence, I received hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for information I provided them, including information I gathered at various industry conferences," Hansen said.
Court documents show Hansen was paid at least $800,000 over the years, including a $300,000 "consulting" fee.
Hatcher said Hansen carried cash back from China and also used a "sophisticated" means to transmit money to businesses he owned using credit cards. Agents were able to use Hansen's tax information to "push the case along," he said.
Hansen said he solicited national defense information from a Defense Intelligence Agency case worker that he knew the Chinese intelligence services would find valuable and agreed to be a "conduit" to sell it to the Chinese.
"I advised the DIA case officer how to record and transmit classified information without detection, and I explained how to hide and launder any funds received as payment for classified information," he said.
Hansen said he now understands the officer reported that information to the Defense Intelligence Agency and then acted as a confidential informant for the FBI.
On June 2, 2018, the officer gave Hansen the information he asked for, which was classified at the "SECRET/AIOFORN" level and contained classification markings, Hansen says in the plea agreement.
"The information related to the national defense of the United States in that it related to United States military readiness in a particular region and was closely held by the United States government," Hansen said.10 comments on this story
Hansen said he reviewed the information, took written notes and told the officer he would remember most of the details "and that I would conceal some notes about the material in the text of an electronic document that I would prepare at the airport before leaving for China."
It was at that point in Seattle that agents arrested Hansen.
Hansen admitted in open court that he intended to sell and sold secrets to China, Huber said, adding, "He knew that was to the betrayal and detriment to our country and to the benefit of a foreign power."