Nov 9, 2021 - World

Exclusive: ACLU joins Chinese American scientist's lawsuit against U.S.

Photo illustration of Sherry Chen and the scales of justice.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed an administrative complaint to the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Justice, asserting claims of false arrest and civil conspiracy on behalf of a Chinese American scientist who was cleared of espionage-related charges in 2015.

Why it matters: Hydrologist Sherry Chen's ordeal has spanned three presidential administrations and is adding to growing concerns about U.S. government profiling of Chinese American scientists.

Driving the news: In September, the U.S. Commerce Department announced plans to shutter an internal security office — the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) — after a Senate report found the office had gone beyond its authority to pursue law enforcement investigations.

  • The report said the office had become a “rogue, unaccountable police force” that "broadly targeted departmental divisions with comparably high proportions of Asian-American employees."
  • The investigation of Chen had originated at ITMS, according to the report.
  • The ACLU's administrative complaint joins Chen's original lawsuit, first filed in 2019, and adds new claims incorporating the information revealed in the Senate report.

Background: In October 2014, Chen, who worked for the National Weather Service in Ohio, was arrested on espionage-related charges. But five months later, federal prosecutors dropped all charges.

  • Chen later filed a complaint with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and a judge ruled in Chen's favor, writing that federal investigators “found no evidence that Ms. Chen had ever provided secret, classified, or proprietary information to a Chinese official or anyone outside of the agency.”
  • Even so, the Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service, placed Chen on administrative leave and has refused to reinstate her ever since.
  • The Commerce Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

What she's saying: “The government’s wrongful investigation and prosecution upended my life and shattered my career," Chen told Axios in a statement.

  • "I was devastated to learn about the long-running abuses committed by this rogue security unit and the extent of its discrimination against Asian Americans like me. I want the government to be held accountable for how it’s treated me and so many other dedicated federal employees," Chen said.

The big picture: Chen's case is part of a larger problem that spans decades.

  • During the Cold War, the FBI surveilled Chinese students and scientists, and the U.S. deported a talented U.S.-trained scientist named Qian Xuesen who later helped China launch its space program.
  • In 1999, Taiwanese American scientist Wen Ho Lee was charged with passing information about U.S. nuclear weapons to China, but most charges were eventually dropped and he received a $1.6 million settlement.
  • More recently, the Department of Justice's China Initiative, launched in November 2018 to combat economic espionage, came under scrutiny when its first prosecution fell apart and a judge acquitted Anming Hu, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, of all charges.

Between the lines: “Ms. Chen’s case is part of a disturbing pattern of government discrimination against scientists of Chinese descent, spanning the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations," Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, told Axios in a statement.

  • "Under the ‘China Initiative,’ federal agencies have unjustly investigated and prosecuted Chinese American scientists on the basis of their heritage, upending lives only to have many cases fall apart," Gorski said.

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