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Suspected Chinese NASA spy smuggled smut not state secrets

Congressional accuser red-faced after optics boffin cleared

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After a dramatic airport arrest by the FBI, which had been tipped off by a Republican congressman, the data concealed by a former NASA scientist with a one-way ticket to China has been revealed as pirated porn, not the secrets to the next interstellar drive.

In March Dr. Bo Jiang, 31, a former employee of the National Institute of Aeronautics (NIA) at NASA's Langley Research Centre, was arrested just before he could board his flight to Beijing. He lied to investigators about what he was carrying – trying to hide the fact he had a spare laptop and old hard drive in his bags.

Jiang had been named by congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, as a suspect in the theft of the space agency's sensitive secret research.

At a press conference after Jiang's arrest, Wolf said he had called the head of the FBI personally to warn him of the danger the Chinese man posed, kickstart an investigation, and said Jiang could be involved in a serious security breach.

Reds under the bed

According to Wolf, a whistleblower at NASA informed him about Jiang's dodgy behavior and said he was concerned that the doctor was carrying "source code for high tech imaging technology," that could be used by the Chinese People's Liberation Army to develop drones and advanced aerospace projects. Jiang had taken the hard drive with him on a previous visit home in violation of security policy, Wolf claimed.

The congressman also accused the space agency of bending the rules by hiring "certain foreign nationals of concern," and demanded to know how many other Chinese boffins NASA was employing. Wolf called for an independent investigatory panel to review the situation, an immediate block on the new hiring of foreign nationals, and a thorough investigation of any foreigners working at the agency, with full prosecution of any security offenses.

But Jiang was exonerated in a hearing on Thursday. "None of the computer media that Jiang attempted to bring to the PRC on March 16, 2013, contained classified information, export controlled information, or NASA proprietary information," according to the statement of facts filed in Jiang's case, Bloomberg reports.

A gentleman's private collection

The contents of the laptop and hard drive he was trying to conceal turned out to be nothing more than pirated films and "sexually explicit images." He pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of violating NASA's administrative rules, but this was dismissed on the proviso that he leave the country within 48 hours.

"Dr. Jiang is relieved this ordeal is over," said his lawyer, Fernando Groene. "Although he was accused in arena of public opinion and in the halls of Congress, once due process was given he was cleared of any and all allegations that he was a spy."

Jiang came to the US in 2007 and obtained his doctorate from Virginia's Old Dominion University three years later. He started work at NASA shortly afterwards on a $100,000-a-year contract, working on an image resolution enhancement program for the NIA.

Jiang was one of 281 foreign national referenced in congressional hearings last month as of security concern, and was let go from NASA. After his visa expired he booked a one-way ticket home, but was arrested at Washington's Dulles airport and investigated under the Arms Export Control Act

"I remain concerned that neither the prosecutors nor NASA have addressed the original question of why a NASA laptop was inappropriately provided to a restricted foreign national associated with 'an entity of concern' and why he was allowed to take the laptop and all of its information back to China last December," Wolf told Bloomberg.

Lessons from history

Wolf's witchhunt campaign against having foreigners working in the US government is nothing new, and there may actually be people spying on NASA from within. But if the lessons of history tell us anything, it's that blanket bans and knee-jerk nationalism can blowback with spectacularly bad results.

In 1950, similar accusations of Chinese spying were leveled at Qian Xuesen, cofounder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and one of the most world's most accomplished rocketry engineers. He had come to America 15 years before the Communists took control of China in 1949, but the following year was named as a suspected communist after applying for US citizenship.

Qian was kept under house arrest for the next five years and was, like Jiang, accused of smuggling secret documents out of the US – although they were later found to be logarithmic tables. He was eventually deported to China in exchange for US pilots shot down over Korea.

Once back in China, Qian was put to work by Mao's regime and developed the nation's first nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as the Long March boosters that drive the Middle Kingdom's space program. Without his input it's inconceivable that China would be as advanced in the field as it is today.

While El Reg isn't suggesting that Dr. Jiang was of the same caliber as Qian – although getting that kind of salary from a parsimonious NASA suggests he is no slouch – one wonders if yet another mistake has been made that will cost the US in the long run. ®

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