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Navy espionage case: Legal proceedings will be classified, top admiral says

April 13, 2016 (Photo Credit: MC1 Sarah Murphy/Navy)

The U.S. Navy will seek to prosecute an alleged spy using closed court proceedings because the allegations against him have brought worrisome attention to the military's secretive intelligence gathering activity, the service's top officer told Navy Times on Wednesday.

Speaking with the newspaper's editorial board, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson was cautious when asked about Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin, the naval flight officer accused of leaking sensitive information either to China, his native Taiwan or perhaps both. Lin was assigned to one of the Navy's two "special projects" squadrons, seldom-discussed organizations that conduct aerial reconnaissance and surveillance aimed at foreign military activity. He remains in jail on a host of charges, including espionage.

"Much of the disposition of this case will be done in classified venues," Richardson said, acknowledging the unwanted publicity of such sensitive military operations.

Before his arrest last year, Lin was assigned to Special Projects Patrol Squadron 2 in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Known as VPU-2, the unit operates P-3 Orion and P-8A Poseidon aircraft outfitted with sophisticated spying equipment but made to look unremarkable to the untrained eye. The squadrons' missions are classified and assigned by the U.S. government's most senior officials.

The case gained public attention only recently, after Lin's preliminary court hearing Friday in Norfolk, Virginia. The hearing's officer is expected to determine within the next week whether his case will proceed to a court-martial.

In the meantime, the Navy appears to be addressing any security oversights that enabled Lin's alleged activity to go undetected. Richardson indicated that could result in new policies. 

"These sorts of situations: Nobody ever wants these right?" he said. ... "Yeah, we've sort of done some initial assessments and have responded to that, but the details of that stuff are difficult to talk about in this venue."

Richardson's remarks suggest the case will remain in the military's justice system, said Gary Solis, a retired military judge who now teaches law at Georgetown University. He called that surprising given the significant consequences — internationally and domestically — of what's been alleged.

Federal court seems like a more appropriate venue, Solis said. It's possible, he added, the government could step in and claim jurisdiction. 

Regardless, the desire for a classified setting makes sense, he said. The proceedings would be public until prosecutors seek to introduce evidence or testimony that contains national secrets or other sensitive data. 

"Then the court would be closed," Solis said. "The judge will determine if that information is admissible, and then re-open" after any classified material is presented.     

Andrew deGrandpre is a senior editor with the Military Times network. He oversees enterprise reporting and investigations. 

With reporting by Defense News naval warfare reporter Christopher P. Cavas and Navy Times reporter David Larter.

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