In September 2020, when federal authorities charged Baimadajie Angwang, a Marine Corps veteran and New York Police Department officer, with acting as an illegal agent of China, the head of New York’s F.B.I. office called him “the definition of an insider threat.”
The government has quietly changed its mind.
On Thursday, in a brief and subdued hearing in a Brooklyn courtroom, a federal judge granted prosecutors’ request to dismiss the charges against Officer Angwang.
The swift unraveling of the case — which had been hailed as a signature example of the Justice Department’s efforts to root out foreign agents embedded in the United States — came with scant detail, much of it obscured by classification. In court Thursday, a federal prosecutor said that a “holistic” consideration of new evidence, developed in the two years since Officer Angwang’s arrest, had persuaded prosecutors to drop the case.
For Officer Angwang, the dismissal was vindication, but not before the charges exacted a steep cost. Accused of spying on Tibetans for two Chinese consular officials, he spent six months in a jail cell, then under strict home monitoring as a flight risk. He remains on paid leave from the Police Department, his future uncertain.
Outside the courthouse Thursday, in the driving rain, Officer Angwang spoke briefly to the assembled reporters: “Thanks for all the people who trusted me, since the beginning.”
John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, declined to comment.
Officer Angwang’s journey to Thursday’s court hearing was laid out in charging documents, prosecutors’ memos and letters submitted by Officer Angwang’s lawyer, John F. Carman, seeking his client’s release from pretrial custody and for the charges to be dropped.
An ethnic Tibetan, Officer Angwang was born in China. After coming to the United States as a teenager on a cultural exchange visa, he returned to Tibet and was arrested, detained and beaten by Chinese authorities.
Beijing considers Tibet, an autonomous region in China, to be part of its historical empire, but many Tibetans believe the region was illegally incorporated into China in 1951 and have pressed for independence. The Chinese government has long viewed the Tibetan independence movement as a threat to its stability. The Justice Department has accused China of using agents in the United States to spy on Tibetan dissidents.
Mr. Angwang returned to the United States at age 17 and successfully applied for political asylum. He joined the Marines in 2009, spent seven months in Afghanistan, and in 2010 became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
After an honorable discharge in 2014, he enlisted in the Army Reserve, where he had what prosecutors described as secret-level security clearance. He joined the New York Police Department in 2016 and served on patrol, later working as a community affairs officer in the 111th Precinct in Queens.
On Sept. 21, 2020, F.B.I. agents arrested Officer Angwang at his home in Williston Park, on Long Island, where he lived with his wife and infant daughter. He was charged in a criminal complaint with acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the attorney general — a charge derived from old spying statutes, known as “espionage lite” — and with obstruction, wire fraud and false statements.
The charges came amid growing concern on the part of law enforcement authorities in the United States and other Western countries about Beijing’s efforts to monitor Chinese nationals abroad, including dissidents. The Justice Department under former President Donald J. Trump had an initiative aimed at fighting security threats posed by Chinese academics and scientists, which yielded several cases — several of which the government lost or withdrew — before being it was formally ended last year.
Prosecutors said Officer Angwang communicated regularly with two consular officials in New York, including one whose department was responsible for “neutralizing sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority” of the Chinese government.
The criminal complaint cited several recorded phone calls between Officer Angwang and the unnamed official, in which Officer Angwang discussed his successful recruitment as an agent of China, saying the official’s supervisors in China should “know you have recruited one in the police department.”
The complaint claimed that Officer Angwang invited one of the officials to attend Police Department events “to raise our country’s soft power,” and recommended the officials visit a new Tibetan community center in Queens, saying it could help with spotting potential “intelligence assets.”
He lobbied for a 10-year travel visa from China, where his parents still lived, and argued that such visas would be helpful in recruiting other intelligence assets, according to prosecutors’ early court filings.
He was also accused of lying on a government questionnaire for national security positions, saying he had no contact with foreign nationals.
Prosecutors sought his detention, citing his “significant family and community ties” to China and “extremely unusual and suspicious” wire transfers to and from the country. They also suggested that the manner in which he obtained U.S. citizenship “suggests he committed a fraud on the United States.”
He was ordered detained, and sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Days later, Mr. Carman wrote the first of what would be four motions for his release. He also fought back against the claims in the indictment, noting, for one, that the Chinese official with whom Officer Angwang had communicated was in charge of visas for Tibetans seeking to travel to and from China.
“Mr. Angwang, like many other American Tibetans, was beholden to” the official, Mr. Carman wrote. “It is in this light that the Court should assess Mr. Angwang’s solicitous tone and accommodating posture.”
It took more than five months to secure Mr. Angwang’s release to home confinement, over the objections of prosecutors. Since his arrest, people driving by Officer Angwang’s home would yell slurs in his direction, his lawyer said.
Much of the government’s evidence and investigation was cloaked from public view — and from Officer Angwang himself — because of strict rules governing classified materials gathered through national security surveillance.
An October 2022 trial date was pushed back to February 2023, as prosecutors sought time to review tranches of evidence. This month, the trial date was pushed again, to July.
Then, in a filing late last Friday, prosecutors asked Eric R. Komitee, the judge overseeing the case, to dismiss the charges.
“As a result of our continued investigation, the government obtained additional information bearing on the charges,” the government wrote. “Having assessed the evidence as a whole in light of that information,” they wrote, “the government hereby moves, in the interests of justice, to dismiss the indictment.”
At Thursday morning’s hearing, Judge Komitee pressed the assembled prosecutors to say anything about their request beyond the “fairly oblique” language in last week’s filing.
“I understand the limit on your ability to speak,” Judge Komitee said, citing “the classified information overlay.”
J. Matthew Haggans, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the decision was “based on an assessment” of the evidence “holistically.”
Judge Komitee started to speak, then paused. “We all remember well, of course, the fanfare with which this case was brought initially,” and the “fairly protracted” litigation over Officer Angwang’s detention, the judge said.
“Everyone sitting in the well of this courtroom, including the court himself, owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Carman for his doggedness” in pursuing his client’s pretrial release, the judge said. “We would obviously be sitting here in a very different posture today had Mr. Angwang been incarcerated for the duration of this case.”
He credited the prosecutors with acknowledging the case had dissolved, rather than pressing ahead to trial.
“Better late, as they say, than never,” Judge Komitee.
Outside the courthouse, Mr. Carman said he and his client were “working through” a possible return to active duty police work, and they were reviewing potential possible legal action against the government.
“The government has been very sparing in their description of the reasons why they dismissed the indictment, because of the classified information that was at play in this case,” Mr. Carman said. “Mr. Angwang was innocent from the very beginning.”