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Extradition Clouds: The Duggan Case And The Chinese Angle – OpEd

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Soon, the US government may be making waves regarding another extradition request for a figure connected with that oft exaggerated notion of national security. While the high profile and insidious effort to extradite Julian Assange from the United Kingdom continues, the case of former US pilot, Marine Corps major and flight instructor Daniel Edmund Duggan has crossed the radar of reporters and international lawyers. 

On October 21, Duggan was arrested by Australian authorities in the New South Wales town of Orange at the request of Washington. He appeared in Orange Local Court and was refused bail.  

After his formal tenure as a military pilot, Duggan moved into the field of aviation consultancy, running AVIBIZ Limited, “a comprehensive consultancy company with a focus on the fast growing and dynamic Chinese Aviation Industry.” He moved to Australia in 2005, where he founded Top Gun Tasmania, providing customers flights in the British military jet trainer, the BAC Jet Provost, and the CJ-6A Nanchang, a Chinese propeller-driven trainer. His staff consisted of former US and UK military pilots.

From Australia, he moved to Beijing in 2014 after selling Top Gun Tasmania, working with a Chinese businessman, Stephen Su, also known as Su Bin. Su had been convicted for hacking charges in the US, having been arrested in Canada in July 2014 regarding the theft of US military aircraft designs. Duggan’s residential address from December 2013, an apartment in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, was also of interest given that it appears on the US Entity List in August 2014 as belonging to Su and his technology company, Nuodian Technology. 

Duggan’s own expertise is being babbled about in some circles: as a former Harrier pilot, his expertise in vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighters such as the F-35B and AV-8B is considered of interest to some powers.  

That same week, a stir had been made of Chinese mischief regarding certain pilots keen to make some post-retirement cash. British intelligence had flagged the issue of 30 ex-RAF pilots working with the PRC military, though a South African flying school damped matters in claiming that no classified information had passed hands.  

According to a statement from the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), “none of its trainers are in possession of legally or operationally sensitive information relating to the national security interest of any country, whether those from where its employees are drawn or in which it provides training”. Since 2013, “British tutors have been in direct contact on an individual basis with the UK MoD and other UK government agencies prior” regarding training duties, including Chinese clients. No objection had been raised.

The whirligig of time is, however, a strange thing. UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey thought that enough smoke had risen to warrant a comment on loyalties. “It certainly doesn’t match my understanding of service of our nation – even in retirement – to then go and work with a foreign power, especially one that challenges the UK interest so keenly.”

Much of this is stringent codswallop, given the vast array of consultancies and training connected to old military hands and a multitude of foreign powers.  Such old dogs rarely go quietly in retirement, and are, at the best of times, happy to offer their services at a consultative level. That surprise should even register at this point suggests that something more is afoot.

Without a wisp of evidence and basis, Duggan, a former US marine and naturalised Australian citizen, is already being treated as a target for extradition.  He has been advised that he will be moved to Goulburn Supermax, described by his lawyer Dennis Miralis as “dramatic and aggressive” and “without any proper foundation”. “There is no factual material that has been provided supporting the way he was indicted secretly in the US.”

The authorities have been disturbingly reticent.  “As the matter is before the courts, it would not be appropriate to comment further,” claim the Australian Attorney-General’s department  and police authorities. Beijing has also decided to shed little light on the matter. “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned,” came the response of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin to a query on the issue.  

The US Navy has also stated that it was “not aware” of the pending arrest of Duggan, while the US Marine Corps would only confirm Duggan’s service record.  In a response to Forbes, the US Air Force noted that, “At this time, we aren’t aware of any ex-Air Force pilots working with the Chinese.”

Former USN captain Bill Hamlet was more forthcoming, noting that the issue of having former US military pilots working with Chinese authorities had never made an appearance between the sacrosanct covers of the Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings. “There’s growing concern that this is a problem and people are wondering to what extent.  How many NATO pilots have been helping the Chinese improve the proficiency of their airforce?”

Miralis has made it clear that a complaint will be filed with the Australian Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which should leave little room for optimism. Duggan had returned from China “a few weeks prior to his arrest and in the intervening period a number of interactions occurred with those agencies that the inspector-general of intelligence has the capacity to investigate.” 

The will is there, but the flesh is weak; the IGIS, as with many other oversight bodies in the Australian bureaucratic canon, is scandalously understaffed. The 2020-21 annual report is unreserved about the nature of the staffing problems, unable to achieve “well-developed and effective complaint and PID [Public Interest Disclosure] management processes”. As of June 30, the office has 33 working individuals, which is 22 short of what is recommended.

The US Justice Department, for its part, has 60 days from the date of Duggan’s arrest to request extradition. Miralis is cognisant about what this case entails. Throw out the legal protocols and the jurisprudence: brute power is at stake. “This has nothing to do with law, this has everything to do with international politics and international relations.”

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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