The Duggan extradition case and the Chinese angle

Daniel Edmund Duggan was a former Harrier jump jet pilot, with expertise in vertical take-off and landing. Photo: Javier Rodríguez/Wikimedia

While the high profile effort to extradite Julian Assange from Britain continues, the case of former United States pilot Marine Corps major and flight instructor Daniel Edmund Duggan has slipped under the radar.

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

After his formal tenure as a military pilot, Duggan moved into 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 with 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 British military pilots.

After selling Top Gun Tasmania, he moved to Beijing in 2014 to work 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 talked about. 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.

The same week as Duggan’s arrest, British intelligence flagged that 30 ex-RAF pilots were working with the PRC military, though a South African flying school. The stir around pilots making some post-retirement cash dampened when it became clear that no classified information had changed hands.

According to the Test Flying Academy of South Africa “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.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey thought enough smoke had risen to warrant a comment. “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.”

Given the array of consultancies and training connected to old military hands and a multitude of foreign powers, much of this is codswallop. Such retirees are happy to offer their services at a consultative level.

That “surprise” should even register suggests that something else is afoot.

Without a wisp of evidence, Duggan, a former US marine and naturalised Australian citizen, is 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. The Australian Attorney-General’s department and police authorities are not speaking about it “as the matter is before the courts”.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin Beijing decided to shed little light on the matter. “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned,” he replied after being queried.

The US Navy stated 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 United States Navy Captain Bill Hamlet was more forthcoming, noting that having former US military pilots working with Chinese authorities had never been reported in 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 a complaint will be filed with the Australian Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), which leaves 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 IGIS, as with many other Australian oversight bodies, is understaffed. Its 2020-21 annual report said it is 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.

Meanwhile, the US Justice Department has 60 days from the date of Duggan’s arrest to request extradition.

According to Miralis: “This has nothing to do with law, this has everything to do with international politics and international relations”.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]