By Robert Boczkiewicz and John Shiffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A Chinese citizen convicted of trying to smuggle American-made radiation-hardened microchips from California to China was sentenced Wednesday to three years in U.S. prison.
Philip Chaohui He, the target of a U.S. Homeland Security sting, was arrested in late 2011 at a port near Los Angeles as he approached a Chinese freighter. In his car trunk, agents found 200 radiation-hardened microchips hidden inside a tub of baby formula.
U.S. officials report a recent spike in efforts by the Chinese government to obtain the specialized, American-made microchips, which are critical for operating satellites and ballistic missiles, as well as protecting military hardware from solar and nuclear radiation. The He case was the subject of a Reuters special report on Tuesday.
"I love my adopted country with all my heart," He said in court Wednesday. "The last thing I would do would be to harm this country. I'm sorry beyond words."
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Y. Daniel issued a sentence that was about a year less than prosecutors sought and a year more than He's lawyer requested. The judge said that although He "bent over backwards to avoid getting caught," he had otherwise led a productive life and had been a "model prisoner."
He was charged in Denver because he ordered the microchips from a nearby manufacturer, Aeroflex of Colorado Springs, Colorado. In custody since December 2011, He pleaded guilty in September to smuggling and conspiracy to violate the Arms Export Control Act.
U.S. officials have said they believe the microchips were purchased on behalf of the state-run Chinese space program. He has said he believed they were for commercial, not government use. His motive was monetary, not political, he said.
Born in China, He moved to the United States in the mid-1990s. In April 2011, while working as an engineer for the California state transportation agency, He used his side business to order 312 radiation-hardened microchips from Aeroflex.
It is legal to buy such sensitive technology for domestic use, but illegal to export it without U.S. government approval. Aeroflex employees found He's large order suspicious and alerted Homeland Security agents, who initiated a sting.
After He sent Aeroflex a check for the full cost of the 312 microchips - $549,654 - undercover agents delivered them to He's small company in Oakland. Although He was arrested carrying 200 microchips, 112 remain missing. U.S. authorities believe those were successfully smuggled to China.
(Reporting By Robert Boczkiewicz in Denver and John Shiffman in Washington)