CSIS repeatedly warned space agency about engineer facing breach of trust charge
A former Canadian Space Agency engineer who allegedly used his position to act on behalf of a Chinese company was the subject of a warning from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service as early as 2015, according to recently released court documents.
The affidavits to obtain warrants to search the home, phone and emails of Wanping Zheng were made public after lawyers for La Presse and CBC applied to have them unsealed by the court.
Zheng, 61, a resident of the Montreal suburb of Brossard, Que., faces a single count of breach of trust. The allegations against Zheng have not been tested in court.
Reached Tuesday, Zheng’s lawyer Andrew Barbacki said he was still awaiting disclosure of the evidence and wouldn’t have much to add for the time being.
According to the charge filed, the alleged crime took place between July 1, 2018, and May 30, 2019, in Brossard and St-Hubert — where the Canadian Space Agency is headquartered — as well as in Toronto, Ottawa and elsewhere in Ontario and Quebec.
Concerns over security clearance
According to the sworn police affidavits, Canada’s intelligence service sent three warnings to the space agency in September 2015 and March and May of 2016, concerned over Zheng’s “reliability status” — essentially his security clearance.
According to the documents, the initial 2015 warning did not indicate what had triggered the spy agency’s concerns, but a few months later, the CSA was asked if Zheng had access to information about an anti-vibration table, an intellectual property belonging to the space agency.
The court document suggests that despite the three warnings, Zheng’s security clearance status was renewed by the space agency in April 2017 — though only for two years instead of the usual 10 to ensure he was following internal policies.
Later in 2017, CSIS refused to provide a briefing to the space agency because Zheng would have been present.
In May 2018, Zheng took a six-month unpaid leave of absence from the agency and was allegedly reminded of conflict of interest rules again.
Investigation leads to sick leave
It was in December 2018 that Zheng was told he was subject to an internal investigation by the CSA, and he went on sick leave three days later. He resigned his post at the agency in September 2019. Six days after that, agency officials contacted the RCMP.
The RCMP have said their Integrated National Security Enforcement Team began an investigation in October 2019. The unit probes activities carried out by, or on behalf of, foreign actors that put Canada’s economy or institutions at risk.
In one affidavit to secure access to Zheng’s BlackBerry, authorities allege that Zheng represented or worked on behalf of at least five firms while working as a CSA engineer and used his position to facilitate links with two companies that fell outside his mandate.
Last December, the RCMP said in a brief statement outlining the case that “Mr. Zheng allegedly used his status as a CSA engineer to negotiate agreements for the installation of satellite station facilities in Iceland.” The alleged actions were “on behalf of a Chinese aerospace company,” the statement said.
The court documents note that Zheng was employed by the space agency for 26 years between 1993 and 2019. During that time, computer technicians at the agency found secure file transfer software and an encrypted messaging application on his computer, which went against the agency’s internal rules.
The Canadian Space Agency has said previously that when concerns about Zheng’s activities came to light, it launched an internal inquiry and restricted his access until his employment ended in 2019. The agency said it is confident the measures protected against any improper disclosure of information and it has moved to strengthen security measures to protect information, individuals and assets.
A spokeswoman for the space agency said it couldn’t comment further due to the ongoing court case, which returns to court on Thursday in Longueuil, Que., south of Montreal.
In February, the federal government filed an application with the Federal Court under the Canada Evidence Act trying to shield some sensitive information from disclosure in the case against Zheng.
Prosecutors raised concerns that “sensitive information or potentially injurious information was required to be disclosed” in the case that would “injure national security if disclosed,” according to a filing.
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