When you read the headline, you’d most probably go, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Why would a Singaporean, Dickson Yeo Jun Wei, be a China spy…in the US? Aren’t spies just characters in Running Man?”
You’ve read through all the articles in mainstream media, and even checked out the CIA website, but you’re still confused. You even found Dickson Yeo Jun Wei’s image…
…and realise he looks more like a keyboard warrior with good hair gel than a James Bond.
Don’t be confused, because Goody Feed is here to simplify everything for you.
So if you’re one who watches Crash Landing on You instead of Homeland in Netflix, this article could make you sound smarter during a random coffeeshop talk as you use the words “handler” and “intel”.
Technically speaking, the use of the word “spy” isn’t actually accurate since the word “spy” is very broad. Instead, the correct term should be intelligence gathering.
You see, while it looks like we live in a beautiful world with tower bubble teas and pretty influencers, the world isn’t a bed of roses; spies exist everywhere. For example, country A might have their operatives, usually known as agents, in many countries.
These operatives would work normal jobs in other countries but their real goal is to gather sensitive information about the country. But because they’re obviously foreigners, they would recruit locals in the country to help get the sensitive information, which is also known as intel.
When that happened, they become the “handlers” of the locals who provide information. How do they do that, you ask. Well, if you know, they’d have to kill you, so just watch more Netflix dramas and draw your own conclusion.
Reader Bao: Wait, so all your info here is from Netflix?
No, it’s from Homeland on Netflix. You really should watch that.
Intel is important because they can be used against a country if needed, and any intel is useful, because you never know when you’d need to use it.
For example, recently, there has been massive hacks in servers and they’re attributed to “state-sponsored attacks”, which means a country hacked into a server to get intel. Some might look useless to you, like the contacts of a group of people, but remember: the goal is to gather as much intel as possible.
An example of an effective use of intel is how the US knows so much about North Korea’s nuclear activities even when they can’t just walk into their office and demand to see North Korea’s plans: most information is derived from intel gathering.
So if you’re shocked at the news, then you shouldn’t be after reading this first point. And I won’t blame you if you think that the cai png uncle you frequent often could be an agent for Mars, and his handler is the nearby cat that often looks at you suspiciously.
2017 “Spy” in Singapore
If you still think that James Bond is just a show and no spy exists in this perfect world, then look no further than 2017.
Huang Jing is a Singapore PR and was born in China. His qualifications are outstanding: he has a master’s degree in history from Fudan University and a PhD from Harvard University. Moreover, both he and his wife are US citizens and he was an associate professor in the US before moving to Singapore in 2008, joining the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, where he was the director of the Centre on Asia and Globalization and the Lee Foundation Professor on US-China Relations.
Everything looks goody until 2017, when he was accused by the Ministry of Home Affairs for working for an intelligence organisation and agents from an unnamed country to influence the Singapore’s foreign policy and local public opinion.
The country isn’t revealed.
His permanent residence was revoked and let’s just say that he wasn’t happy.
Is that considered a spy? This is precisely why it’s not apt to use the term “spy”, because he wasn’t gathering intel but influencing society instead—but still, he’s alleged to be working for another country’s intelligence organisation.
Wikipedia uses the word “spy”, though.
So now you know how dark the world is, here’s one more thing you need to know before moving on to the recent case.
Spying in the New Age: Digital Spying
Remember how intel-gathering was done with operatives and agents?
These are still ongoing but in recent years, spies, just like your uncle who used to despise the Internet, has gone digital.
Known as digital spies, they don’t carry hidden pens filled with poison, but sat in front of a supercomputer. They do more than just hacking or mining for intel; they even have the ability to turn off energy grids or water supplies through online attacks.
For that, please watch Designated Survivor (the US version, not the Korean version) in Netflix.
Why is this relevant?
Because this latest case involves a combination of conventional spying and digital spying.
Who is Dickson Yeo Jun Wei?
After over 900 words of info, we’re finally here. So, who’s Dickson Yeo Jun Wei?
Not much is known about the 39-year-old himself (of course lah: do you know much about James Bond?), but what is understood is that he’s a Singaporean and enrolled as a PhD student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where he researched China’s framework of treatment for small states along its Belt and Road Initiative trajectory. This is public information based off NUS’s website.
Reader Bao: Wait, that school sounds familiar…
Yes, it was where Huang Jing was from.
How He Was Recruited
Yeo was in Bejing to give a presentation on the political situation in South-east Asia in 2015 when he was recruited by China intelligence operatives.
It was mentioned that initially, those operatives had initially claimed to be China-based think tanks, and offered Dickson money in exchange for political reports. But “Yeo came to understand that at least four of these individuals were intelligence operatives for the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government. One of the intelligence operatives later asked Yeo to sign a contract with the PRC People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Yeo refused to sign the contract but continued to work for this and other (Chinese intelligence service) operatives.”
Soon after, the operatives requested non-public information from Yeo. According to court documents, “At first, the taskings were focused on Southeast Asia. Over time, the taskings became focused on the United States.
“Although these (Chinese intelligence service) operatives used pseudonyms in their interactions with Yeo, they were open about their affiliation with the PRC government. One of the operatives told Yeo that he and his boss worked for the PRC’s main intelligence unit.”
Over the next few years, he continued to meet them during his trips to China, and regularly received special treatment when entering China. In fact, when he entered China, he would be taken off the customs line and brought in a separate office for admission into China.
Maybe that was all he wanted: to cut queue?
He, however, wasn’t comfortable with that, but his handlers told him they wanted to “conceal his identity” when he travelled into China.
The exact reason why he eventually followed their instructions is unknown, but for reference, please watch Homeland from Netflix.
Okay, so now that he’s a spy, so what intel can he gather? The number of cats in NUS? He’s a Singaporean in Singapore after all, and the most classified info he has is most probably the RO during his ICT.
Chinese Handlers Told Him What to Do
Dickson is indeed a typical Singaporean because he appeared to have waited for instructions.
In 2018, his handlers told him to create a fake consulting company, and his goal was to obtain non-public information about the US Commerce Department, artificial intelligence, and the US-China trade war.
The Department of Commerce is an executive department of the federal government concerned with promoting economic growth
According to his LinkedIn page, he created a company called “Resolute Consulting”.
Now, remember, this was the period when the US-China trade war was ongoing.
By now you should be wondering: okay, he created a fake company. How can he gather intel with that?
Read on because that’s even more interesting than Homeland.
Actually no, please still go watch Homeland.
Gather Intel by Taking Resumes
Imagine you’ve once worked in, say, the US Commerce and is responsible for reading up about Huawei. In meetings, you’ve come to realise that the US is going to ban Huawei for 6,000 years because many people didn’t know how to pronounce the name properly. This information is classified, and you work in an environment whereby you can’t even bring a camera phone in.
You’ve since resigned from the department because you love Huawei, and are therefore looking for a new job. That was when you see an online job listing by, say, Resolute Consulting, in a social media platform catered for jobs. Maybe Friendster or whatever.
You then met up with Yeo, who somehow could feel your pain: he, too, loves Huawei. You’re also in debt, and Yeo offered you a high-paying job. You were told to write a report about your job in the US Commerce, and would even be paid up to US$2,000 (~S$2,765) for the report.
Yeo said the report was meant for clients in Asia.
So you wrote the classified information, thinking that you’re going to get a job in Asia. After all, it seems legit since you even received the money for it, and this information would only be sent to, maybe…Nokia?
That’s how Yeo gathered intel, because those reports and resumes are sent to the Chinese Government instead.
And now, China knows the reason why US is banning Huawei, so they can change the name to Weihua, and they might just win the China-US trade war immediately.
Where He Operated
It’s unknown when he operated prior to 2019, but court documents show that he lived in Washington from January 2019 to July 2019.
When he was in the US, he lived the life of a spy; he wasn’t allowed to communicate with his Chinese handlers, and would send emails to them from a local coffee shop. He was discouraged from taking his phone and notebook.
When he wasn’t in the US, he would use WeChat to communicate with his handlers, and had to use multiple phones. Each time he’s contacted his handlers, he’d have to change his WeChat account.
For reference…watch Homeland.
How He Gathered So Much Intel
All in all, he managed to amass 400 resumes and 90% of them from US military and government personnel with security clearances…all in four years.
And here’s when it gets a tad interesting: how the heck did he manage to find so many people he wanted? Did he go through millions of resumes to find the 400?
No, he had some unexpected help.
One word: algorithm.
You see, once Yeo found a potential candidate to “spy on”, the “professional networking website” that was focused on career and employment that Yeo used would suggest new candidates that match the same profile.
It’s not mentioned what website it is, but you and I know what it is lah.
Reader Bao: Of course it’s Instagram
So the algorithm indirectly helped Yeo.
According to court documents, “Yeo checked the professional networking website almost every day to review the new batch of potential contacts suggested to him by the site’s algorithm.
“Later, Yeo told US law enforcement that it felt almost like an addiction.”
That’s some nasty work there.
Some Intel That Was Shockingly “Useful”
Yeo managed to find some “useful” intel, like a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B military aircraft programme and a US Department of State employee. The State Department staff even wrote a report about a then-serving member of the US Cabinet. He then regretted it, fearing that if State Department officials discovered he had provided information to Yeo, it would jeopardise his retirement pension.
Yeo then paid him for the report.
So how did he get the money? He was given a bank card by his handlers, of course. You’d never see James Bond using his own money.
How He Was Found
It’s unclear how long he had been in the authorities’ radar, but it all appeared to begin when he corresponded with a US Army officer using his usual modus operandi.
The officer worked in Pentagon, the US Defence’s HQ. After meeting the officer a few times and building rapport with him, the officer then confided in Yeo, saying that he was traumatised by his military tours in Afghanistan.
Yeo then asked him to write information for his “clients” in some Asian countries, and the officer did just that, writing how the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan would impact China. The officer was paid for it.
Seeing that the officer could be a good source of information (remember: he is still working in Pentagon), Yeo was told to recruit the US officer to provide more classified information and offered more money to the officer. In other words, Yeo wanted to be the handler of the officer, though the officer had no idea that he was providing information for China.
When Yeo went back to the US on November 2019 to look for the officer and intend to tell him who he really worked for, he was arrested.
Could the officer be a double agent?
For reference, watch Homeland.
What’s Next For Yeo
As you slept through a Saturday morning, Yeo has pleaded guilty to his charges to one charge of operating illegally as a foreign agent.
He admitted to working with the Chinese intelligence between 2015 to 2019 “to spot and assess Americans with access to valuable non-public information, including US military and government employees with high-level security clearances.”
Mr Alan Kohler, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said, “Mr Yeo admits he set up a fake consulting company to further his scheme, looked for susceptible individuals who were vulnerable to recruitment, and tried to avoid detection by US authorities.”
I’m just as glad as you to know that he knows Yeo is the surname and not the first name.
Mr Alan—I mean, Mr Kohler added, “But this isn’t just about this particular defendant. This case is yet another reminder that China is relentless in its pursuit of US technology and policy information in order to advance its own interests.
“The FBI and our partners will be just as aggressive in uncovering these hidden efforts and charging individuals who break our laws.”
Yeo could face up to 10 years in prison.
He’d be sentenced on 9 October 2020.
And by the way, just a few days back, the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston after they alleged that it’s a hub of spying and operations to steal US technology and intellectual property.
So far, the Singapore authorities haven’t responded to this.
Just to be clear, this article isn’t sponsored by Netflix, though seriously, you’d find this relevant if you’ve watched Homeland.
Here’s the trailer for the first season: