Can a Police Officer Accused of Spying for China Ever Clear His Name?

Now that he is no longer accused of being a secret agent for China, Baimadajie Angwang can start asking hard questions.

The hardest: How could he — a naturalized U.S. citizen, New York City police officer and Marine Corps veteran — have been jailed for months over what he says were misunderstood phone calls and classified evidence that not even his lawyer could see in full?

When federal authorities arrested Officer Angwang in September 2020, they accused him of reporting on other Tibetans to a handler at the Chinese consulate in New York. They said he had lied on security forms and questioned whether his case for citizenship had been predicated on false claims.

A federal judge dismissed the charges last month, at the government’s request. Pressed for clarity, prosecutors told the court that they had made a “holistic” assessment of the evidence, and that the charges should be dropped “in the interests of justice.”

But national security cases leave stubborn stains on a good name. Prosecutors sometimes drop them to avoid disclosing evidence to a jury or the defendant, or because of concerns that state secrets might spill in a courtroom.

That leaves Officer Angwang, 36, living under a cloud of unresolvable doubt. He has been on paid administrative leave from the Police Department for two years, and has not been allowed to rejoin.

The case’s unraveling demonstrates the complexity of investigations based on classified intelligence, the broad powers of the federal government to sweep up communications and the challenges of prosecuting, let alone defending, those cases in court.

Officer Angwang says he does not know why the authorities began investigating him about five years ago. He believes that politics might be part of it: The Trump administration was on high alert for security risks from China, and the arrest of a New York police officer on spying charges made a splash.

He is rankled by the extreme secrecy with which the government held its classified evidence, describing it as an “abuse of power.”

His lawyer, John F. Carman, said that what little evidence he was allowed to review was condensed and redacted. He was not allowed to share it with his client.

A Police Department at a Critical Moment

The New York Police Department is facing challenges on several fronts.

  • Violence During Protests: The Police Department must overhaul its response to large demonstrations and better train officers to control crowds, according to a report released by an oversight body that examines police misconduct.
  • A Hefty Price Tag: An analysis of city data shows that the Police Department paid $121 million in police misconduct settlements — the highest amount since 2018.
  • A Botched Prosecution: The perjury trial of a former detective was meant to shine a spotlight on police misconduct. Instead, it will be remembered as a highly public case of wrongdoing by prosecutors.
  • Looking Abroad: The trial of Abdullah el-Faisal provided a window into how the Police Department’s secretive Intelligence Bureau, which has faced controversy over the years, pursued an international figure.

“It creates a cloak of mystery,” Mr. Carman said. “You only have to assume that this guy did stuff that was bad for the country. Which is an inference that’s easily drawn, but in this case definitely should not have been drawn.”

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn did not comment.

In court filings as recently as March, prosecutors disputed Mr. Carman’s characterization of the charges and evidence, and said the case should be resolved by a jury.

Officer Angwang did not know he was under investigation until shortly after 9 a.m. on Sept. 21, 2020. As he was getting ready to drive to work from his home in Williston Park, on Long Island, his 2-year-old daughter began to cry. She wasn’t usually fussy, so he held her. Don’t cry, he told her. Be good.

His wife stood with the toddler at the door as Officer Angwang walked to his car. In an instant, at least four modified pickup trucks pulled up and a half dozen agents in tactical gear poured out. With rifles inches from his face, they pushed him against his car, handcuffed him and led him away.

It was hours before Officer Angwang learned what he was being charged with, and at first he was disoriented. English is his third language, and he sometimes falters. What did it mean to be an agent?

Officer Angwang was born in 1986in a village in Tibet, an autonomous region of southwest China. Many Tibetans say the region was illegally incorporated into China in 1951, and have pressed for independence. But Beijing considers Tibet part of its historic empire, and sees the movement as a threat.

He traveled to the United States on a cultural exchange visa as a teenager. When he returned, he was detained and beaten by Chinese authorities, who were suspicious of his contact with an uncle who had fled the country, Mr. Carman wrote in a court filing. Officer Angwang returned to the United States at 17, sought asylum and ultimately secured citizenship.

In 2009, he joined the Marines, later extending his commitment to serve seven months in Afghanistan. After an honorable discharge in 2014, he joined the Army Reserve, obtaining “secret” level security clearance.

Officer Angwang’s lawyer, John Carman, said the government showed him a single sheet of classified evidence.Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

He joined the New York Police Department in 2016, inspired, he said, by the sharp uniforms and the kindness of street cops he relied on when he first arrived. He married and settled in suburban Long Island, a short drive to his job as a patrol officer and, later, community affairs liaison in Queens’s 111th Precinct, where many Tibetans live.

But trying to secure a visa to visit Tibet, where his parents remain, was onerous.

Success depended on the good will of one consular official in New York. Officer Angwang described him as an ethnic Tibetan who was the initial gatekeeper, a low-level official with outsize responsibility.

Prosecutors, however, said this man — identified only as PRC Official-2 in court filings — was Officer Angwang’s handler, assigned to an agency responsible for neutralizing potential opposition.

Court filings suggest the authorities began monitoring Officer Angwang around 2017; by June 2018, they had a warrant to intercept his phone calls. By March 2020, prosecutors said, Officer Angwang and the official had exchanged at least 55 calls and texts — communications that formed the basis of the charges, filings show.

Prosecutors argued that Officer Angwang reported on the activities of Tibetans, advising the consular official, for example, about a new community center. They said he suggested ways to cultivate intelligence sources — “When the consulate extends a helping hand to them, they will feel the warmth of the motherland” — and invited consular officials to N.Y.P.D. events where they might meet department leadership.

He also was accused of taking direction from the official, and appeared to identify himself as an asset, saying: “You have extended your reach into the police.”

After his arrest, Mr. Carman sought to explain the calls in the context of the coveted visa: Officer Angwang, he wrote to the judge, was “beholden” to the official, striking a “solicitous tone and accommodating posture.”

Days later, he wrote: “Mr. Angwang’s approach clearly included posing as a PRC sympathizer and offering to help increase China’s ‘soft power.’”

But Officer Angwang was sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he would remain for five months.

For the first two weeks, he said, he had to borrow another inmate’s underwear. The facility was in disarray. He described nights without heat, Covid lockdowns, lack of medical care, staffing shortages. When Officer Angwang got sick, guards denied him pain relief.

“This is America — America, I went to Afghanistan for,” he said, with a laugh of disbelief. “I asked for Tylenol.”

Mr. Carman finally secured his release in February 2021, as the government began to disclose its evidence.

The case largely rested on the recorded phone calls, Mr. Carman said. Officer Angwang said that the government misinterpreted the communications by selecting a few words without context, and at times mistranslated them.

There were also interviews with people who knew Officer Angwang. They included members of the Marine Corps, Police Department and the Army Reserve. His supervising officer at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey had updated the government on him for more than two years. Each time, the officer said that there was nothing amiss, Mr. Carman said.

Then there were the classified materials, which in criminal cases require a special choreography: First, the government must seek information from agencies like the C.I.A. or the Department of Defense. Then prosecutors and the trial judge determine in sealed motions and meetings what defense lawyers can see, and what can be used at trial.

The process can be burdensome for prosecutors and defense lawyers alike.

Prosecutors must weigh a potential conviction against the risk of exposing secrets. Sometimes, “the conviction is not worth the disclosure of the information,” said Sabrina Shroff, a federal public defender who has tried high-profile national security cases.

But Mr. Carman believes that is not what happened in this case. In August 2022, he went into a secure room at the Brooklyn federal prosecutor’s office to review the single-page summary prosecutors made available. “What I saw was so powerful,” he said, “it caused me to write to the judge and ask if that’s what they have, why hasn’t there been a motion to dismiss?”

Finally there was: One evening this January, Mr. Carman got a phone call from the prosecutor’s office. They were dropping the case.

That leaves Officer Angwang waiting not only to clear his name and regain his job, but for permission to visit his family in Tibet.

“After all of that,” Mr. Carman said, “he never got a visa.”

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