A former U.S. Army analyst who tried to board a flight to China with electronic files containing restricted Army documents pleaded guilty Thursday to theft of government property in a case the defense insisted was about carelessness, not espionage.
Liangtian (lang-TIN') Yang entered the plea in U.S. District Court in Lawton and was sentenced to three years of probation by U.S. Magistrate Shon T. Erwin. Yang faced up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine on the misdemeanor charge. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Gifford II had asked for five years of probation but did not seek a fine.
Afterward, defense attorney John Zelbst said Yang, also known as Alfred Yang, made a mistake when he tried to take the manuals out of the country without the required permission.
"It was careless," Zelbst said. "Alfred did some things that were probably irresponsible. It's not an espionage case. It's a case of a really bad mistake."
Yang, a 26-year-old former field artillery analyst at Fort Sill in southwestern Oklahoma, entered the guilty plea seven months after he was detained on Aug. 24 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport following a security screen prior to a Tokyo-bound flight with China as its final destination. Investigators found copies of Army field manuals on multiple launch rocket systems on his computer equipment.
"There were several manuals," Gifford told Erwin during a sentencing hearing. Although none were classified as top secret, they were restricted, he said.
Yang, who was dressed in casual clothes and was almost inaudible as he spoke to the magistrate, admitted he obtained the manuals through his employment at Fort Sill and that they were still on his computer as he tried to leave the U.S. Yang lost his security clearance on Aug. 16 after Army officials learned he had not reported getting married as required. Yang's wife is a Chinese citizen.
Defense attorney David Butler analogized the case to one of shoplifting and said Yang had cooperated with government investigators as they tried to determine if he was a threat to national security.
"He's done everything he possibly could," Butler said. He asked Erwin to give Yang credit for the 70 days he spent in pre-trial detention at the Grady County Jail and impose just one year of probation.
Erwin indicated he believes the case was more serious.
"This is not garden-variety theft of government property case," Erwin said. "Five years is too long. One year is not enough."
Erwin said Yang will be bound by the terms of a plea agreement during his three-year probationary period, including a requirement that he not seek employment to do anything that requires a security clearance. Yang, who has surrendered his passport, also agreed not to contest any discharge he receives from the Oklahoma Army National Guard that is less than honorable.
Authorities have said Yang, of Lawton, has lived in the U.S. since 2001 and became a U.S. citizen in 2006. Zelbst said Yang, his wife and their 18-month-old son were returning to China so he could complete his doctoral degree. Yang received a bachelor's degree in business at the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree at Cameron University in Lawton, he said.
Zelbst said Yang and his wife, who holds a doctorate degree in engineering, are currently unemployed.