U.S. contractor gets 7 years for passing secrets to Chinese girlfriend

HONOLULU, Sept 17 (Reuters) - A former U.S. military contractor in Hawaii was sentenced on Wednesday to more than seven years in prison for passing national defense secrets to his Chinese girlfriend and illegally keeping numerous classified documents at his home.

Benjamin Pierce Bishop, 60, a retired Army lieutenant colonel assigned to the U.S. Pacific Command on Oahu, admitted in March to the espionage offenses and agreed to cooperate with investigators in a plea deal that staved off additional charges.

As an active-duty reservist stationed at the command headquarters and later as a civilian contractor employed there, Bishop had top-secret security clearance, authorities said.

He pleaded guilty to one count of communicating classified national defense information to an unauthorized person - in this case emailing secrets in 2012 about joint training and planning sessions between the United States and South Korea.

The email recipient was a 27-year-old Chinese woman who was residing in the United States as a graduate student on a J1 visa while having a romantic relationship with Bishop that federal investigators said he kept hidden from the U.S. government.

In an affidavit filed in the case last year, the FBI said the pair met in Hawaii at an international military conference and that the woman may have been targeting individuals with access to classified information.

Bishop also pleaded guilty to unlawfully retaining classified national defense papers at his residence, including U.S. Armed Forces Defense Planning guides for years 2014-2018, a document titled Optimizing U.S. Force Posture in the Asia-Pacific, and the U.S. Department of Defense China Strategy.

China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, have long engaged in spying against each other, though prosecutors and the FBI have not said whether they believe the woman, identified in court documents as “Person 1,” was necessarily working for the Beijing government.

According to the FBI affidavit, Bishop and the woman had been romantically involved since June 2011, and that he passed national defense secrets to her in a series of emails and telephone calls beginning the following May, including plans for deploying U.S. strategic nuclear systems and early warning radar networks.

The two charges to which he pleaded guilty carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. He was sentenced to a prison term of seven years and three months, to be followed by three years of supervised probation. (Malia Mattoch McManus contributed to this report from Honolulu; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Eric Walsh)