A military expert says the U.S. Navy officer who is facing espionage charges for allegedly passing state secrets, possibly to China and Taiwan, may have been in possession of valuable signals intelligence.
A redacted Navy charge sheet says the suspect, identified by an anonymous U.S. official as Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin — a naturalized citizen from Taiwan — was assigned to the Navy's Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, which manages intelligence gathering activities.
Andrei Chang, a military expert and founder of Canadian and Chinese Defense Review, told VOA that information about how the U.S. Navy carries out such signals collection operations could be highly valuable to a foreign government.
After a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in 2001, Chang said, China forced the reconnaissance aircraft to land in a Chinese airport and dismantled it, hoping to get more information about its intelligence gathering capacity.
"With the East China Sea and South China Sea dispute intensifying, and the deterioration of Sino-U.S. strategic relations, the United States frequently sends EP-3 electronic reconnaissance aircraft into the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and to places very close to China's coastal areas," said Chang, explaining that the planes are capable of conducting a variety of radio, telephone and mobile communications operations.
"It can monitor, record, measure and use the information to locate military bases to find out what kinds of planes took off, and what orders were given," he added.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry declined to comment, but Taiwan's Defense Ministry said the current espionage case is unrelated to its government affairs, and it has no information on the case.
Taiwanese media outlets quoted Defense Ministry generals as saying that, in the past, if any Taiwanese were suspected of espionage, the United States would notify the Taiwanese government and ask them to assist with the investigation, but this time the United States made no contact.
Taiwanese news reports also say the U.S. navy has accused the suspect of communicating secret information and three times of attempting to do so "with intent or reason to believe it would be used to the advantage of a foreign nation.”
A Taiwanese official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity confirmed the suspect is a Taiwanese immigrant, but that "that is the only thing linking this case to Taiwan." U.S.-Taiwanese military exchanges have not been affected by the case, he added.
U.S. officials said both Taiwan and China were possibly the countries Lin may have passed information to, but stressed the investigation is still ongoing. White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed that a Navy officer was in custody on espionage charges at Navy Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Virginia, but declined to offer additional information.
The suspect, who is also accused of engaging in prostitution and adultery, was apprehended at an airport in Hawaii, possibly while attempting to leave the country.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he was not aware of the details of the case.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service. Some information is from Reuters.