In a Reversal, Taiwan Officials Seek To Block U.S. Spy Investigation
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After publicly vowing to cooperate in an espionage investigation involving a top State Department official, Taiwanese officials have quietly reversed course, seeking to block American investigators from using diplomatic records important to the probe.
Last month, Taiwan’s mission in Washington, known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, asked a federal judge to order the return of documents that one of the office’s intelligence officers, Isabelle Cheng, turned over to the FBI in 2004.
Ms. Cheng surrendered the records as American investigators explored her relationship with a senior State Department official, Donald Keyser.
Late last year, Keyser pleaded guilty to charges that he kept thousands of classified documents at his home without permission, lied to investigators about a trip to Taiwan, and concealed what he acknowledged was an intimate relationship with Ms. Cheng. He was not charged with espionage and vehemently denied providing any classified information to the Taiwanese official.
In June, prosecutors sought to be released from the plea bargain on the grounds that Keyser failed two polygraph examinations and was not being candid in debriefings about his contacts with Ms. Cheng. The government said it wanted to file new and more serious “espionage-related” charges against Keyser. His attorneys contend he has met his obligations under the plea.
When the case first became public in 2004, Taiwanese officials said they would assist the American investigation. “The two governments of Taiwan and the U.S. will fully cooperate in handling this case,” a spokesman for Taipei, Chen Chi-Mai, said.
It is unclear precisely when or why the two governments fell into disagreement about the Keyser investigation.”Normally, we try to respect the American judicial system,” a spokesman for the Taiwanese mission, Albert Liu, said yesterday. “We don’t have any comment.”
An attorney representing Taiwan in the proceedings, Thomas Corcoran Jr., did not return calls seeking an interview.
Taiwan seems to have been eager to prevent the falling out with America from becoming public. It asked that its legal motion for return of the diplomatic papers be kept secret, but a federal judge in Washington, Paul Friedman, rejected that request. The dispute has now been transferred to a Virginia-based judge overseeing the proceedings against Keyser, Thomas Ellis III.
A prosecutor, David Laufman, said in a court filing that Ms. Cheng “voluntarily retrieved” the records from her office. He wrote that the reports and e-mails she provided “are central” to the government’s claim that Keyser has failed to cooperate.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys ascribe different motivations to Keyser’s efforts to keep his relationship with Ms. Cheng under wraps. The prosecution attributed the secrecy to the American diplomat’s “improper intelligence relationship” with his Taiwanese colleague. The defense said the subterfuge on Keyser’s part was due to his fear that his sexual relationship with Ms. Cheng might be disclosed to his wife or family. Keyser has also said some of the deception was to evade aspects of the State Department’s “one China” policy, which strictly limits diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese officials.
Prosecutors have placed much of their evidence against Keyser on the public record, including details of what seemed to be Ms. Cheng’s intimate encounters with him in his automobile. However, some of the government’s suspicions about Keyser are based on classified allegations from an individual who has not been publicly identified.
Prosecutors have given defense lawyers only a summary of the classified evidence and have barred them from discussing it with their client.
“For the government to ask the court to decide, based on secret evidence, that the defendant has been untruthful, and is therefore not entitled to hold the government to its bargain, is reminiscent more of the Star Chamber than of courts of law in this country,” an attorney for Keyser, Robert Litt, complained in a recent filing.
The government’s effort, if successful, could expose the former no. 2 official in the State Department’s Asia bureau to a prosecutorial tactic the Bush administration recently agreed not to use against alleged terrorists. After several lawmakers, including Senators McCain of Arizona and Graham of South Carolina objected that the use of secret evidence at military tribunals was fundamentally unfair, the White House abandoned its plan to permit witnesses or other evidence that the alleged war criminals would never see.
“In the last few years, we have seen defendants in federal court given less access to information than would be available in these tribunals,” a law professor at George Washington University, Jonathan Turley, said. “Obviously, prosecutors now view ex parte communications as an easy way to prevail.”
The government has not sought to introduce secret evidence to prove Keyser’s guilt, but only to upend his plea deal. However, Mr. Turley said, the same concerns about fairness apply. “It’s still a very significant stage of the prosecution,” he said.
A hearing on revoking Keyser’s plea is set for next month.