DOJ Drops All Charges Against Professor After Realizing No One Checked To See If What He Sent To China Was Actually A Secret

from the total-failure dept

There's been a bit of hysteria in the US lately about "the Chinese stealing our secrets." Now, there's plenty of evidence of corporate espionage going on from China, but the actual impact of it appears to be quite overblown. But as we're in a giant moral panic about everything China related, the White House launched a big "crackdown" on such things recently -- and so far it seems to have resulted in the DOJ destroying innocent people's lives, while getting a lot of egg on its face. The latest: late on Friday the DOJ announced that it was completely dropping all charges against Xi Xiaoxing, the head of Temple University's physics department, who had been arrested earlier this year for apparently sharing the schematics of a special device known as a pocket heater with Chinese scientists. The only problem? It turns out he didn't actually share the schematics of a pocket heater with the Chinese -- the FBI just assumed what he shared must be a pocket heater. But it wasn't.
The schematics, prosecutors said, revealed the design of a device known as a pocket heater. The equipment is used in semiconductor research, and Dr. Xi had signed an agreement promising to keep its design a secret.

But months later, long after federal agents had led Dr. Xi away in handcuffs, independent experts discovered something wrong with the evidence at the heart of the Justice Department’s case: The blueprints were not for a pocket heater.

Faced with sworn statements from leading scientists, including an inventor of the pocket heater, the Justice Department on Friday afternoon dropped all charges against Dr. Xi, an American citizen.
You would think that this is the sort of thing that the DOJ would check before arresting the guy and destroying his life.
“I don’t expect them to understand everything I do,” Dr. Xi, 57, said in a telephone interview. “But the fact that they don’t consult with experts and then charge me? Put my family through all this? Damage my reputation? They shouldn’t do this. This is not a joke. This is not a game.”
And he's not kidding about putting his family through a terrible situation. A dozen FBI agents "with guns drawn" stormed his home when he was arrested back in May. His whole family was there at the time.

Meanwhile, as the NY Times report notes, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Just a few months ago, the DOJ similarly dropped all charges against Sherry Chen, who worked for the National Weather Service. The story here is perhaps even more ridiculous. Chen, in a visit back to China to see her parents, had also visited with a former classmate, who was a senior official in the Ministry of Water. In passing he asked her some questions about how certain projects concerning US reservoirs were funded. Chen later emailed him some links to public websites that contained some basic info (not even that relevant to the original question). She also put him in touch with a colleague she had worked with at the Army Corps of Engineers who might be able to answer more questions. That person reported the emails to officials saying she was "concerned" about what was happening.

And, from there, the DOJ flipped out. It got a warrant, searched her emails and work computers and discovered a very weak link. In searching around, Chen had accessed another database, just for US government workers, using a colleague's password, since she didn't have a password to that particular database (but was allowed to access it). She had downloaded some info that was useful to a project she was working on, and had told her former classmate back in China that if he wanted info from the database, he would need to go through more official channels, suggesting the colleague at the Army Corps. of Engineers... who had just turned her in as a possible spy.

She was later arrested and her name was all over the press -- and then eventually dropped months later when the DOJ finally took the time to realize that she hadn't actually done anything wrong, and it had jumped to all sorts of crazy conclusions because of her one 15 minute meeting and her sending a few emails with public information.
A week before trial was to begin, Mr. Zeidenberg requested a meeting with Carter M. Stewart and Mark T. D’Alessandro, two United States attorneys for the Southern District of Ohio.

“Why,” Mr. Zeidenberg said he asked, “if she’s a spy, is she coming back from China and telling her colleagues that ‘I met this guy in China and this is what he wants to know’? Why is she telling the guy in China, ‘Here’s my boss’s phone number’? Why is she asking for a password over email? Why would you do that?”

Mr. Zeidenberg says the prosecutors listened. On March 10, the day after their meeting, they dismissed the charges.

“Thank God,” Mr. Zeidenberg added.
You'll notice, of course, that both of the individuals arrested are American citizens, but were born in China, leading to reasonable accusations that the DOJ is overreacting to Chinese-Americans and assuming that anything they do with people back in China may be espionage.

Again, it's likely that there is real espionage going on. No one denies that. But when we scare ourselves so much that we're looking for ghosts, we're taking down innocent people because the DOJ is just too amped up looking for "bad guys" and either unable or unwilling to actually look at the evidence first. That's really, really messed up.

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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 4:08am

    Collective embarrassment is meaningless, make it personal

    You want to decrease incidents like this? Make it so that those responsible have to publicly, via every venue that they talked about the case, admit to being wrong and apologize for screwing up so badly.

    Make it so that the apology and admission holds the same place as the original bogus claims, so if the previous story was front page news, so is the apology.

    And finally, hit 'em where it hurts, the wallets of those involved. Not the agency budget, but the personal pay of all of those involved, to the tune of perhaps 50% of what they were paid while the 'case' was ongoing. Give them some real incentive to make sure that they have a case before dragging some poor sod through the mud and ruining their reputation and life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 11:29am

      Re: Collective embarrassment is meaningless, make it personal

      Make it so that the apology and admission holds the same place as the original bogus claims, so if the previous story was front page news, so is the apology.

      Seems like that would run into 1st Amendment issues. What right does the government have to force a newspaper to print something?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        DanA, 14 Sep 2015 @ 3:17pm

        Re: Re: Collective embarrassment is meaningless, make it personal

        The easiest solution would be to require the department to purchase 'advertising' space at whatever market rate for the pages where the story was originally shown is and then print a advertorial approved by the victim or victims lawyer.

        While I'm dreaming of unicorns I think an idea like this would work better for any article in which they provided comment to the newspaper either on the record or off than for any article on the case since it then has a direct tie to the individual's behaviour and encourages law enforcement to stop defaming people before acquiring a conviction.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Blackfiredragon13 (profile), 23 Sep 2015 @ 1:37pm

          Re: Re: Re: Collective embarrassment is meaningless, make it personal

          In which case the expenses for such advertising space should come from those who made the mistake, as That one Guy suggested.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 7:46pm

        Re: Re: Collective embarrassment is meaningless, make it personal

        DanA basically answered that, the newspaper wouldn't be forced to print the apology, it would be up to the agency in question to buy the space in question for the apology. If that costs them a hefty amount, too bad.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 4:09am

    The More Things Change

    Sounds like a repeat of the Wen Ho Lee case - never learn from past mistakes, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 7:30am

      Re: The More Things Change

      ... never learn from past mistakes, right?

      I wonder how much of this is just simple racism, like interning Japanese in WWII, carpet bombing Koreans and ChiComs, and padding the bodycount with women and children in Vietnam. They're just gooks after all, and there's plenty more where they came from. :-P

      I haven't heard of any efforts to put those who failed to secure OPM into jail, and that's far more likely damaging than this gong show.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 4:24am

    What no Encryption?

    Just imagine the shitfit Comey would have had if the emails were encrypted. It would have been the impending end of the world. So no back door needed, hey? All they needed to do was check the FACTS but they were in such a rush to the press release the facts were not relevant or necessary. This is like a real life circus clown car disgorging ADA's with warrants and swat teams, but clowns non the less. Like a pack of blood hounds tracking a bitch in heat, no thought involved, just raw pheromones. "We got them now I'm going to fuck that bitch".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 4:39am

    Perhaps someone should check to see if the DoJ is using the new version of the xenophobic training manuals the FBI was using to understand Muslims (with Muslim crossed out and Chinese penciled in.)

    They didn't have time to check what they assumed, because ZOMG espionage. They are sending a clear message that talking to the undeclared enemies of the state will result in them destroying your life. There is no recourse for these cases built on guesses and no evidence beyond vivid imaginings of true americans. When cooler heads FINALLY manage to get them to look and see that there is no case, there is no recourse. Just a slap on the back, as they shove you back into the crater that was your life.

    Allegations are the thing people remember. No one ever remembers that they were found innocent, or were railroaded. See also Central Park Jogger Case - Even after real investigation proved these kids were railroaded & screwed... you still have people behaving like they must have done it.

    We are far to obsessed with catching the boogeymen they created, that we forget these the boogeymen come from a story they told us to keep us scared. To keep the narrative going some innocent people getting screwed is a small price to pay... we can all sleep safer at night as they 'catch' people who are completely innocent. We all accept that this is the price others have to pay for us to be safe, never thinking what happened to others will ever happen to them.

    Those that "investigated" this case, need to be removed from active duty until they can be retrained in how to investigate. They failed to do their job, and someone else is paying the price for their stupidity. As I am fond of saying, Stupid should hurt... and we should stop shielding the inept from reaping the pain they deserve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 5:22am

    This seems to be typical of western security these days. Shoot first, aim second, if at all.

    Someone should tell them that it's generally a good idea to take the gun out of the holster before shooting. It's less painful for the feet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 5:30am

    The life and Rights of one citizen

    That's one of the biggest problems we have with "law and justice" these days: First, it is neither law nor justice. Second, collateral damage is irrelevant. Who cares about the life and rights of one citizen when DOJ is trying to deter lawbreakers? Especially when they can make political propaganda at the same time?

    And if the poor, pitiful, picked-on "widdle" citizen feels he's been wronged, he can always go to court and grab a million or two of taxpayer money. See? All better now, and we didn't even have to admit wrongdoing.

    One citizen at a time, like potato chips. But it's not like there's a pattern of activity here that needs to be reigned in, oh no. These are all isolated incidents.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 5:37am

    and when things like this happen, it does away with terrorists because our own government and security forces are doing the jobs for them! and those security forces heads wonder why it is that the people want to use encryption. if not, there would be 100x more people in prison than not, with the majority having done nothing! it's turning more and more into a country run by people who are so scared of everything, so scared something they dont know about or dont like, that every single piece of freedom and privacy is being removed. does that sound like what happened in Germany, in Russia, in China and Korea? it seems almost as if those in charge are trying to turn the country into one that is run under the very regimes, Fascism and Communism, that it supposedly fought against elsewhere!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 6:11am

    so what was the schematic for then, if not a pocket heater?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jessie (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 7:02am

    Stupid truth getting in the way of a press release about stopping terrorism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 7:15am

    You have no rights if the state decides it wants to make an example of you

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 7:31am

    our govt again showing its ass to the whole world.

    way to go, fellers.  here's another chaw.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Coyne Tibbets (profile), 14 Sep 2015 @ 9:38am

      Re:

      The original story was page one, "China Spies!!" in 220 point red ultra bold type. Now they are "showing their ass" in section D, page 12, the 2 inches at the bottom of the fourth column, right under the nude boobies. Now which do you suppose has the greatest influence on the public and the politicians, hmmmm?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Digitari, 14 Sep 2015 @ 7:36am

    but........

    Piracy....oh wait.............


    (Anyone else notice that the push against piracy and the efforts to prevent spying are running parallel)

    this is endemic in the USA government (local, state and federal).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 8:19am

    It actually was a design for a pocket heater, the kind you carry in your pockets to keep your hands warm on a cold day.

    so you're saying belichick was behind the whole thing?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 8:50am

    The US government is the biggest most paranoid mutherfacker there is. With nukes and guns and armies, with an arrogant superiority complex to boot, and not limited to US, and not applied to all

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 14 Sep 2015 @ 1:36pm

    Nothing new here, the DOJ is just following standard law enforcement policy: Shoot first and hope nobody asks any questions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 14 Sep 2015 @ 1:53pm

    A Public Service Announcement from the Department of Justice (HaHa)

    There is nothing wrong with your mind. Do not attempt to adjust reality. We are controlling everything. If we wish to isolate you from your peers we will tell lies about you. If we wish to seize your personal effects, we will do so without due process using asset forfeiture "laws". We control the levers of power. We control the judges/courts. We can roll your existence, make you disappear. We can change the focus from you alone or sharpen it to crystal clarity and include your friends/family. For the rest of your life, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your mind. You are about to participate in having your life destroyed. You are about to experience the awe and mystery of a Kafkaesque criminal prosecution based wholly upon The Outer Limits of what is morally/legally acceptable.

    Welcome to the idiot states of America.

    Borrowed from:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outer_Limits_%281963_TV_series%29

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2015 @ 2:01pm

    It was encrypted --

    in Chinese!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 14 Sep 2015 @ 3:14pm

    You need to remember that "LEO" starts from the position that EVERYONE is guilty of something anyway--it's only a matter of finding out exactly what they're guilty of. So, presumed guilty until proven innocent is now the standard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      GEMont, 16 Sep 2015 @ 3:05pm

      Re:

      "...guilty until proven innocent..."

      That's actually "Guilty until proven not guilty.", since under current War on Terror and War on Drugs definitions of law and constitutional protections, Nobody is Innocent.

      ---

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    res (profile), 15 Sep 2015 @ 10:20am

    overstepping one's bounds with citizens.

    sounds like Manzanar all over again

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    GEMont, 15 Sep 2015 @ 1:53pm

    Money and Power

    One has to wonder just what all of that World Wide Surveillance Data is actually being used for by the US Feds.

    It is obviously NOT being used for the purpose of catching spies, terrorists, or criminals, who seem to all be having a really good and profitable time without any interference from the Justice Department these days.

    So, what's it for then?

    Commercial espionage? Civilian Blackmail? Foreign Official Blackmail? General Extortion and Control over corporate competitors home and abroad?? A data base for future mass-coercion of the US public once the fascists drop their facade and establish martial law? All of the above?

    Terra-bytes daily, of personal data from every computer, telephone, email, mail, telegram, and verbal conversation in front of a smart TV, in America, (and possibly the world), and they still can't manage to catch any real bad guys with it and instead rely on useless and unverified knee-jerk hunches, pathetically unfounded accusations by sad believers in See and Tell, and imaginary evidence... to arrest non-spies, non-terrorists, and non-criminals.

    Makes me wonder.... well, ok you got me - not really.

    Its pretty damn obvious that all of that surveillance data is used for just two purposes, neither of which has anything to do with criminals, terrorists, or spies.

    For billionaire fascists, its always just about money and power.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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