The 62-year-old retired Lieutenant Colonel was convicted this week of passing sensitive information to a Chinese agent. Sentencing guidelines call for a jail term of at least 6 1/2 years.
Fondren's conviction stemmed from his relationship with Tai Shen Kuo, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was arrested on charges of spying for the PRC. Kuo reportedly served as the conduit for material he obtained from Fondren, who believed his long-time friend was working for the government of Taiwan. While Kuo was born on the island, federal authorities say he was an agent for Beijing.
Kuo was arrested last February along with Gregg Bergersen, a former policy analyst for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Bergersen was indicted on espionage charges for passing information on defense sales to Taiwan and military communications security to Kuo, who funneled it to his PRC handlers. Bergersen is currently serving a 57-month prison sentence, while Kuo received a 15-year sentence.
Before his arrest and conviction, Fondren was a mid-level Pentagon official, working as Deputy Director of U.S. Pacific Command's liaison office in Washington. But his relationship with Kuo goes back to the mid-1990s when Fondren, recently retired from the Air Force, formed a consulting company with Kuo as its only client.
In his former position, Fondren had access to a wide range of classified data. Prosecutors have not detailed the type of information that Kuo received from Fondren, or how long the former officer had been passing information to the Chinese agent. Fondren was convicted on three of the eight counts in his indictment. His attorney plans to appeal the conviction.
While Fondren deserves jail time for his action, some might question his punishment in comparison to that of Ronald Montaperto. Readers will recall that Mr. Montaperto, a long-time China analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (and a former director of a Pacific Command "think tank") was convicted in 2006 of willingly passing Secret and Top Secret information to a known PRC intelligence officer. His sentence? Four months in jail.
Why did Montaperto get off so easy? He was hard-wired into the Washington security establishment. Scores of current and former defense and military officials wrote letters to the judge, urging leniency for Mr. Montaperto. Regrettably, the trial judge went along with their recommendation, and Montaperto regained his freedom after only a short stay behind bars.
As we observed at the time, Montaperto deserved a far longer prison sentence, because there were serious questions about his activities--and loyalty--long before his arrest. The Washington Times reported that Montaperto flunked a polygraph in the early 1990s, when he sought employment with the CIA. The same polygraph also indicated that Montaperto was a possible espionage threat. CIA officials passed along their concerns to his superiors at DIA, but Montaperto was never questioned about it. He remained on the agency's payroll before taking the PACOM job, where his criminal activities were finally exposed.
There's much to be said for consistency in sentencing, particular in espionage-related cases. Fondren, Kuo and Bergersen got what they deserved, but the same standard didn't apply to Ronald Montaperto. Until federal judges--and juries--start getting it right, there will still be high-profile spy cases, and incidents involving the mishandling of classified materials.
After all, four months in jail wasn't much of a penalty for Montaperto's espionage career--one that may stretched across three decades. And, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger never spent a day in jail for stealing highly classified documents from the National Archives. One report that found its way into Mr. Berger's shorts was a "special access program" memo disseminated to only 15 people in the United States government. For his crimes, Mr. Berger paid a fine and lost his security clearance for three years.
As for Mr. Fondren, he probably wishes he had the same judge who imposed that "sentence" on Ron Montaperto.
ADDENDUM: Air Force Times reports that Fondren received his sentence today--three years in prison. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton said lighter punishment was warranted because the information provided by Fondren caused "little or no damage" to national security. In case you're wondering, Judge Hilton is a Reagan appointee who previously served a seven-year term on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That makes you wonder: if Judge Hilton reading of the evidence is correct (based on the sentence imposed), why did the U.S. attorney bring a case against Mr. Fondren, and why didn't the judge simply dismiss the charges against him?