Amidst the torrent of news about cyber spying by China, here’s an intriguing and developing story about possible old-fashioned human espionage.
On Saturday night, the FBI arrested a Chinese national who was working at a NASA facility in Hampton, Va., just as he was about to hop a one-way flight to Beijing. Bo Jiang, who is now in US custody awaiting a dentition hearing, had been the subject of a federal investigation and is suspected of violating the Arms Export Control Act.
Jiang was a contractor for the National Institute of Aerospace, a non-profit group that collaborates with the NASA Langley Research Center. The FBI had apparently been watching him for some time, and according to an affidavit was aware that he had previously traveled to China carrying a laptop computer that belonged to NASA and that contained “sensitive information.” The affidavit doesn’t specify what it was. Langley focuses mostly on aeronautics research, and it has also been involved in spacecraft design.
The FBI got wind of Jiang’s imminent departure a day before he was set to leave. Agents intercepted him at Dulles International Airport, after he had boarded his flight, and questioned him about what electronic media devices were in his possession. Jiang said he was carrying a cellphone, memory stick, an external hard drive and a new computer. But a search revealed other items, including an additional laptop, a hard drive, and a SIM card.
That’s about all we know from the feds. Jiang made a nine-minute appearance in the US District Court in Norfolk yesterday. A detention hearing is scheduled for Thursday at 2pm.
But here’s the meatier backstory.
Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who has long railed against Chinese espionage and whose office computers were infiltrated by suspected Chinese cyber spies, says he received whistleblower complaints from employees at the NASA facility who said Jiang is “affiliated with an institution in China that has been designated as an ‘entity of concern’ by other U.S. government agencies.” (Other government agencies are standard language for the CIA and the NSA.)
A week before Jiang tried to leave the United States, Wolf told reporters that the Chinese national was working on technology “that may have national security implications,” and that he was “allegedly allowed by both NASA and his contractor to take his work and volumes of other NASA research back to China for a period of time…”
If Jiang was on the radar of the FBI and the intelligence agencies as a possible spy, it begs the question what NASA and his contractor knew about his activities and his affiliates in China, and what they were told and when.
A NASA spokesman tells me, “Earlier this month, NASA completed a review of a potential security breach at our Langley Research Center involving a Chinese national who worked for a contractor there. We referred this matter to appropriate law enforcement officials and the person in question no longer works at Langley. We will continue to fully cooperate with law enforcement officials investigating this current matter and stand ready to assist in any way.”
Noting that the investigation was ongoing, the spokesman declined to say how NASA became aware of the breach.
Jiang’s contract employer, the National Institute of Aeronautics, put out a statement that reads, in part, “We continually work hand-in-hand with NASA and other partners to ensure compliance with all US Export Control, immigration laws and regulations. We take export control security very seriously and are cooperating fully with investigators to ensure that any and all allegations related to export control compliance are investigated quickly and thoroughly.”
Chinese industrial espionage in the United States is nothing new, and academic institutions and non-profits that work with government research facilities have long been known conduits for espionage. In the late 1990s, the Army set up a classified research program to study the problem, and found numerous networks for “exflitration” of US secrets, frequently via university programs. Researchers from foreign countries came to the United States, ostensibly to work on projects in their area of expertise, and they took sensitive information back to their home country. Information about weapons designs and precision machine parts were among the items the spies were after.
All that was pretty standard espionage. But until cyber spying became such a huge national concern, the problem received comparatively little attention. In 1999, the so-called Cox Report raised alarms about transfer of US national security technology to China. But that level of espionage is dwarfed by what we’re seeing in cyber spying today, experts say. It’s a lot easier to steal information via a computer network than it is to carry it out of the United States by hand.
Wolf is not a disinterested party in all of this. His district includes portions of the Washington region’s technology corridor, where many government contractors, the frequent target of cyber spies, have offices. Back in 2008, after Wolf revealed publicly that his office’s computers had been breached, he said that he had been “urged not to speak about this threat.” At the time, US intelligence officials were generally more cautious than they are now to talk openly about cyber espionage, much less to point the finger at the Chinese. Not anymore, as has been made abundantly clear in the past few months.