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.