May 1 (Bloomberg) -- A Chinese research scientist suspected of spying on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - -- and pulled from a plane in March as he was about to depart for China -- is set to plead to a misdemeanor charge of violating agency computer rules.
Bo Jiang, who was indicted March 20 for allegedly making false statements to the U.S., was charged yesterday in a separate criminal information in federal court in Newport News, Virginia. Jiang unlawfully downloaded copyrighted movies and sexually explicit films onto his NASA laptop, according to the court filing. A plea hearing is set for tomorrow.
Along with the misdemeanor, the government said it had resolved the false statements case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said in a filing today.
At the time of his arrest in March, Jiang was under federal investigation at NASA’s request for a possible conspiracy involving violations of the Arms Export Control Act, according to an FBI affidavit. Prosecutors said in court papers on April 2 that they were trying to determine whether Jiang had taken, or was seeking to take, “secret, confidential or classified information” to China.
Jiang, barred from NASA facilities late last year and fired from his job in January at the National Institute of Aerospace, was stopped on March 16 as he tried leave Dulles International Airport outside Washington for Beijing. Federal authorities alleged he lied to them by failing to disclose the computer equipment in his possession.
Jiang, 31, was one of about 281 nationals from countries designated as security threats employed at NASA facilities, according to congressional testimony in March by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. He was blocked from resuming his work at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, after coming back from a monthlong trip to China in December, according to court filings.
He took a NASA computer, as well as an NIA external hard drive from his employer, with him on that trip, violating the agency’s security regulations, according the criminal information. Jiang’s employment at the non-profit aerospace and atmospheric research and graduate education institute was terminated on Jan. 11.
Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, told reporters in Washington on March 7, more than a week before Jiang’s arrest, that whistle-blowers at NASA were concerned about possible security breaches at its research facilities.
The agency “should immediately review all foreign nationals with current NASA credentials” and eject anyone with ties to organizations or foreign governments designated as counterintelligence threats, Wolf said on March 7.
A week later, Wolf named Jiang as one of the individuals identified by the whistle-blowers during an exchange with Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general, at a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee led by the lawmaker. The same day, the FBI opened an investigation into Jiang for potential violations of the Arms Control Export Act, according to the bureau affidavit.
Jiang’s lawyer, Fernando Groene, declined to comment on the new charge and plea hearing. Zachary Terwilliger, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride in Virginia, didn’t immediately respond to a phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the plea agreement.
Jill Shatzen, a spokeswoman for Wolf, said he didn’t have a comment on the plea agreement.
Bolden told Wolf’s subcommittee in March that 192 foreign nationals from China had physical access the agency’s facilities. That amounts to more than two-thirds of the total number of employees from countries designated as potential security risks, such as North Korea and Iran, who have access to NASA offices.
Bolden said he had taken steps regarding individuals from designated countries, including a moratorium on granting them any new access and termination of remote computer access to NASA facilities for employees from those countries.
Jiang, while working at Langley’s Visual Information Processing lab through a NASA-funded agreement between NIA and the agency, dealt with “generic work resulting from fundamental research with no classified sensitive or restricted information,” court papers filed by Jiang’s lawyer.
Jiang, who has been in the country since 2007, obtained his doctorate from Virginia’s Old Dominion University in 2010 and worked as a researcher on the multi-scale retinex, an image enhancing project developed by NASA, according to court documents. He was going home because he had no job prospects and his student visa had expired, according to the documents.
Prosecutors alleged that Jiang moved his departure date forward -- from April 5 to March 16 -- after his name was released during the March 13 hearing with Martin, the NASA inspector general.
Jiang said in court papers that he is innocent and was targeted by Wolf for political purposes.
A judge overturned a magistrate’s decision on releasing Jiang on $10,000 bail after the government objected and labeled the defendant a “serious risk of flight.” Prosecutors told the court on April 2 that they hadn’t fully reviewed the electronics found on Jiang at the airport, which included a second computer, two external hard drives, a sim card and an iPod found in Jiang’s luggage.
Jiang faced as many as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted for lying to federal agents.
The case is U.S. v. Jiang, 13-mj-00076, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Newport News).