Jun 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

FBI China spy probe faces backlash as case against professor ends in mistrial

The FBI building

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An FBI agent’s admission he baselessly targeted a Chinese Canadian researcher in an economic espionage probe is driving calls for a federal investigation into the Justice Department's conduct under the China Initiative.

Why it matters: Asian Americans, concerned about racial profiling amid heightened U.S.-China tensions, raised the alarm about the program early on as the DOJ has sought to root out the Chinese government’s efforts to steal intellectual property.

  • Three House members sent a letter to the DOJ Inspector General last week, calling for a probe into "alarming" allegations of FBI misconduct.
  • Since 2018, when former President Trump officially launched the China Initiative, the DOJ has brought charges in over a dozen cases, mostly against researchers of Asian descent.

Catch up quick: Last week, FBI agent Kujtim Sadiku said he used a Google-translated webpage to implicate Anming Hu as having ties to the Chinese military in meetings with Hu's bosses at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

  • Hu had been fired as a result, Knoxville News Sentinel reports.
  • When asked if Hu was actually affiliated with a Chinese defense company, Sadiku said, "Based on that summary translation [shared with UTK] and my bullet point in my outline, no," court transcripts show.
  • Hu, a Chinese-born nanotechnology researcher, is the first person to stand trial as part of the China Initiative. The FBI spied on Hu for nearly two years but could not corroborate claims of spying.
  • He was instead charged with fraud for allegedly concealing part-time work for a Chinese university to secure federal funding. (UTK officials testified that they knew of the connection.)
  • His case ended in a mistrial. The DOJ has not said whether it will pursue a new trial.

What's happening: Civil rights groups are demanding the case be dropped.

  • When authorities are unable to pin a suspect on economic espionage, they turn to charges of fraud to convict them on "administrative errors or minor offenses such as failing to disclose information and other activities that are not illegal under the pretext of combating economic espionage," the group Advancing Justice-AAJC claims, noting that nearly 30,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Biden administration to halt the program altogether.
  • It's part of a larger pattern, the group says. Prosecutors have accused researchers of crimes like stealing trade secrets or federal funds before dropping the most serious, if not all, charges.
  • Scientists are concerned the initiative could have a chilling effect on academia.

The other side: Adam Hickey, the deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ's National Security Division, did not comment on Hu's case but told Axios that economic espionage and the "failure to disclose foreign funding or foreign commitments" are both priorities for the DOJ.

  • The latter "implicates conflicts of interest that might undermine the research," Hickey said.

What they're saying: Revelations from Hu's trial have heightened criticism of the program.

  • Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), in calling for an investigation into FBI conduct, said the program "can result in the unfair and unjustified suspicion of those who are of Chinese descent."
  • Amnesty International invoked the U.S's history of criminalizing Asians in a letter to the White House: The "use of generalizations" based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin "is not only a counter-productive and ineffective form of policing, but also violates human rights."

Yes, but: Tech transfer is "very much a hazard for U.S. national security," says the Center for a New American Security's Ainikki Riikonen, whose research focuses on emerging technologies and international competition.

  • The DOJ's approach is key, she noted. Having a separate research security initiative not specific to China would help the DOJ "frame its work to the public in a way that’s precise, proportional, and at a lower risk of stoking these harmful narratives" of Chinese disloyalty, she said in an email.

Worth noting: Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters this week that the DOJ will counter Chinese espionage while respecting the rights of Chinese people in the United States, per Bloomberg. He did not indicate whether the initiative would end.

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