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For Chinese American Scientists, America is the Land of Opportunity to Go to Jail

May 15 , 2013

The recently concluded (non)case of the government vs. Dr. Bo Jiang bore a striking resemblance to the scandalous Wen Ho Lee case that occurred in 1999 and strongly suggests that racial profiling and bigotry is still alive and well, at least in Virginia. 

On March 16, Dr. Bo Jiang, a citizen of China boarded a plane at Dulles International bound for Beijing. He was accosted and escorted off the plane by FBI agents, put in jail and charged with lying to the law enforcement officials and possible violations of Arms Export Control Act. 

About 7 weeks later, on May 3, the prosecution dropped all charges against Dr. Jiang. But before he was allowed to leave the US for Chengdu China he had to plead to a misdemeanor charge of “misuse of government equipment” in exchange for time already served in jail, so that the government did not have to admit that they made a mistake. 

In 1999, Dr. Lee, the then Los Alamos scientist, was accused of being a spy for China by the New York Times, fingered by then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, thrown into solitary confinement for ten months. Lee was then released with an apology from the presiding judge for prosecutorial misconduct. 

In the most recent case, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) was instrumental in the arrest of Jiang and he was quite proud of his role as the self-appointed spy catcher.  After Jiang’s arrest, the Congressman held a press conference on March 18 and issued a press release in praise of his own role in this affair.  

Wolf is a well-known, long time critic of Peoples’ Republic of China. On March 7, he held a press conference expressing alarm at security violations at NASA-Langley. According to him, anonymous whistleblowers had told him of a Chinese national with unauthorized access to NASA’s secrets. 

Wolf on March 7 already knew about Jiang but was setting the stage for the drama to come. He did say, “It is my understanding that this Chinese national is affiliated with an institution in China that has been designated as an ‘entity of concern’ by other U.S. government agencies.” 

At the March 18 conference, Wolf revealed that Jiang was “trying the leave the country on a one-way ticket.” At the airport, the federal agents had asked what electronic media he had with him. Jiang admitted that he had a cellphone, a memory stick, an external hard drive and a new computer. A search of his luggage found other media items not mentioned by Jiang and that discrepancy too became grounds for suspicion. 

At this point, Jiang could have explained that his work visa in the US was expiring and his contract was not being renewed. He bought a one-way ticket back to China because he wasn’t planning to come back. There was nothing sudden about his flight to Beijing. 

He could have pointed out that the work he did as a NASA contractor was unrelated to national security and he had no access to data and technology related to national security. 

But no one was interested in what the suspect had to say. Fortunately for Jiang, he then got a break. The court appointed Fernando Groene as his defense counsel.  An experienced former federal prosecutor, Gorene accepted the appointment because he was outraged by the injustice of Jiang’s case. 

“It’s all about a witch hunt,” he said to the media shortly after taking the case. The mills of justice ground on for a few more weeks before the prosecution confirmed that Jiang had been telling the truth, namely his computers contained no data or files that violated national security regulations. 

Groene was quick to praise the prosecution for being fair minded after seeing that they had no case. Of course, this did not mean that Jiang received an apology from Wolf, FBI or anyone representing the federal government. 

He experienced first hand the adage, “you can’t fight city hall.” Jiang had to accept a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge for the time served—a misdemeanor of misusing government equipment that most federal employees would also have been found guilty of. 

There were, of course, no offers of compensation for his 7 weeks of incarceration or damages to his reputation, dignity and personal privacy. 

After the case was over and Jiang had gone back to China, attorney Groene gave additional color surrounding this case. 

NASA could hardly ignore the agitation from the Congressman with the power of funding oversight.  In response, NASA had earlier conducted an internal investigation of the allegations against Jiang and found no substantiation. This was duly reported back to Wolf but he would hear none of it. 

A dissatisfied Wolf then wrote letters on March 13 to the US Attorney’s office and FBI insisting that they investigate further, leading to the ensuing fiasco. 

Jiang’s implied sinister connection with an “entity of concern” alluded by Wolf was apparently the school in Chengdu Jiang attended for undergraduate training. Groene pointed out that the Chengdu school had a sister college relationship with the College of William & Mary and the president of William & Mary is none other than Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense in Bush and Obama administrations. 

If anyone has violated federal regulations, Groene concluded, it was Congressman Wolf for disclosing confidential personal information on his website. 

Groene is a naturalized American citizen from Cuba. He is proud to be an American and grateful to be in the land of opportunities but he is concerned over the erosion of our civil liberties as exemplified by the arbitrary law enforcement action against Jiang. 

There are other conclusions to be drawn from this latest case of racial profiling against ethnic Chinese. 

Obviously the US does not have enough scientists that can meet the requirements for security clearances and are thus qualified to do work involving national security. To get around this problem, Government agencies such as NASA have been parceling out work that are unrelated to national security to contractors who can hire scientists that do not hold security clearances. This was the case with Jiang, a Chinese citizen without permanent resident status. 

Such a separation obviously does not satisfy Congressman Wolf and his ilk and thus Bo Jiang becomes a cautionary tale for any ethnic Chinese scientists working in the US. 

Whether it’s in Silicon Valley, universities, government laboratories or major corporations, if you are ethnic Chinese, not only your conduct has to be absolutely law abiding, you also have to stay as far away as possible from being tainted by any hint of wrongdoing. Others might routinely “misuse” government equipment but not you if you’re Chinese. 

During the Wen Ho Lee era, John Deutsch was the then head of CIA. He was reprimanded for routinely downloading confidential files to his laptop and regularly taking it home–a clear case of violating government regulations and gross misuse of government equipment. But he was not ethnic Chinese and therefore he did not have to cop a plea nor spend a day in jail. 

Contrary to popular myth, justice in America is not blind but is on the side of the government. Even if you are innocent, once arrested you are in trouble. As Wen Ho Lee demonstrated then and Jiang now, downloading while Chinese can be dangerous to your wellbeing.

Dr. George Koo is a retired business consultant and a current board member of New America Media.

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