U.S. officials may now be regretting their efforts on Gao's behalf. In a Virginia federal court last week, she pleaded guilty to illegally exporting to China hardened microprocessors, which have military applications. Gao admitted to using a number of front companies and an assumed name ("Gail Heights") to buy 80 chips from a Massachusetts supplier, which she then sold to the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology, one of the top designers of radar systems for China's military. Under her plea agreement, Gao agreed to forfeit $505,000 she earned in the sales and was convicted of tax evasion. She could be sentenced to 10 years in jail.
An official at the U.S. Attorney's office in Virginia, which prosecuted Gao, told TIME that Gao hadn't violated any espionage law. In a statement published in Chinese, Gao denied that she ever spied for Taiwan or China. "I never planned to do anything to support the Chinese government and never thought of harming the U.S. government," she wrote, adding bizarrely that her "dream" was to host a radio talk show in China. Genuine human-rights activists find a lesson in the scandal. Says Xiao Qiang, the former executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China, which lobbied hard for Gao's release: "It's time Americans realized that just because someone is a victim doesn't mean she's a hero."