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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.

Go deeper: The FBI is walking a tightrope on China

Go deeper

Nov 17, 2021 - World

New details emerge on Beijing's hypersonic weapons test last summer

Gen. John E. Hyten arrives for testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in an interview with CBS News that the Chinese government's hypersonic weapons test last summer could jeopardize the world order's current nuclear balance.

Why it matters, via Axios' Zachary Basu: Weapons experts caution that China's hypersonic missile test is not a technological game-changer in the same way that Sputnik was. But the fact that the breakthrough caught U.S. intelligence by surprise is raising alarms in Washington, especially in the context of the Chinese government's rapid nuclear expansion and military modernization efforts.

Storms pummel flood-hit Pacific Northwest as border river overflows

An image of the water-logged Sumas Prairie area taken last Friday. Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transportation/Twitter.

The latest ferocious storm system to hit the Pacific Northwest triggered fresh evacuation orders and at least one mudslide in flood-ravaged British Columbia, Canada, late Sunday.

Threat level: Flood sirens sounded in Washington state as the Nooksack River overflowed. Henry Braun, mayor of Abbotsford, B.C., told reporters the water flow was headed toward the Canadian border city later Sunday. "There's nothing to stop it," he said.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

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