LOS ANGELES — Two men stopped from boarding a plane to China were charged Monday with trying to illegally export sensitive infrared cameras that authorities say are restricted because of their potential military uses.
Beijing residents Zhi Yong Guo, 49, and Tah Wei Chao, 52, were named in a criminal complaint alleging they knowingly exported or attempted to export restricted items without a license, the U.S. attorney's office said.
Prosecutors said both men were a flight risk and asked that they be held without bail. Both were scheduled to be arraigned on April 28.
Chao's attorney Richard Goldman said he did not yet know how his client planned to plead.
"I believe in the presumption of innocence," Goldman said.
A phone message left for Guo's attorney, David Bortman, was not immediately returned.
Guo and Chao each face up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
The men were arrested Saturday at Los Angeles International Airport after they tried to board a plane to China with 10 thermal imaging cameras in their luggage without the proper export licenses, the government said.
The cameras, which are primarily used by law enforcement, fire departments and the military, are carefully controlled for national security reasons and are treated as munitions under the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations. They produce heat-based images invisible to the naked eye.
Federal authorities had been investigating the men since last August., when an Oregon-based company informed them of an order for three of the cameras from a new customer — Printing Plus Graphics of San Gabriel, Calif., according to an affidavit from Special Agent Steve Huerta of the Department of Commerce.
The company, Flir Systems of Wilsonville, Oregon, repeatedly warned the customers that they could not export the cameras without a license, and shared Chao's e-mail address and other documents with authorities.
"These cameras are highly controlled for export by the United States because in addition to legitimate civilian applications, the thermal imaging cameras have potential uses in a wide variety of military actions," Huerta wrote in the affidavit.
Chao's printing business did not "have any legitimate use for thermal imaging cameras," Huerta wrote.
Huerta and other agents conducted surveillance on the printing business and watched the cameras delivered.
Last month, Chao paid $53,000 for 10 more cameras, saying in an e-mail to Flir that they were for "U.S.-based clients," Huerta wrote.
On Friday, FBI agents surveilling Chao watched him pick up Guo in a rental car at an Arcadia shopping center, and followed the men to LAX.
Huerta and other agents observed the men checking in for an Air China flight to Beijing, searched their luggage after it had been checked, and found 10 cameras matching the serial numbers of those bought from Flir, the affidavit said.