Was Chinese Scientist a Spy at NASA?

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A Chinese scientist working at NASA’s Langley Research Center has been arrested by federal agents after he was pulled off an airplane with a laptop and other computer data that may have contained sensitive military secrets, according to a member of Congress.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) identified the NASA contractor as Bo Jiang. He is listed as a “research scholar” on the website of the National Institute of Aerospace, a non-profit Langley contractor.

“What they did here potentially could be a direct threat to our country,” Wolf told Discovery News in a telephone interview. “The Chinese have the most comprehensive spying program in Washington that has ever been. They make the KGB look like they were the junior varsity or freshman team.”

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Jiang was headed home to Beijing on a one-way ticket on Saturday when federal agents arrested him.

Just last week, the FBI had opened an active investigation into whether Jiang, a Chinese national, might have violated the federal Arms Export Control Act, according to an FBI affidavit. But on Friday, agents learned that Jiang "was leaving the United States to abruptly return to China," according to the affidavit, the contents of which were reported by The Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va.

“Jiang told the Homeland Security Agent that he had a cellphone, a memory stick, an external hard drive and a new computer," FBI Special Agent Rhonda A. Squizzero wrote in the affidavit for the arrest warrant. "However, during the search, other media items were located that Jiang did not reveal. Such items found include an additional laptop, an old hard drive and a SIM card."

The affidavit did not say what information was found on the additional laptop, hard drive and memory card -- and whether or not it had any sensitive information contained on it.

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"Your affidavit believes this to be material to the federal investigation, in that it was important to learn what electronic media Jiang was taking out of the United States," Squizzero wrote. "Your affiant is aware that Jiang previously left the United States and traveled to China with a laptop belonging NASA (sic) which your affiant believes contained sensitive information."

Jiang faces a federal charge of lying to an investigator and was being arraigned Monday afternoon at U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va.

Wolf said he is concerned that Jiang had access to the source code for high-tech imaging technology that he was working on at NASA. “This information could have significant military applications for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” Wolf said.

Wolf said he was concerned that NASA was not taking the threat seriously, and that the agency was allowing access to foreign nationals by using a contractor.

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“I remain concerned that Mr. Jiang was employed by NIA allegedly at the direction of NASA officials in an apparent attempt to circumvent appropriations restrictions the Congress has in place to prevent the hiring of certain foreign nationals of concern,” Wolf said.

Wolf is asking for a comprehensive investigation by an outside agency, including more information about Chinese nationals that are working at U.S. research labs and other NASA facilities and have access to sensitive data.

NASA officials said in a statement released Monday that they reviewed “a potential security breach” at the Langley Research Center earlier this month and referred their investigation to law enforcement. Jiang was fired from Langley last week.

“The agency takes any allegation of a security violation very seriously,” NASA officials said. “And follows long-established procedures to investigate these allegations quickly and thoroughly.”

NASA administrator Charles Bolden is scheduled to appear before Wolf’s committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Wolf, whose Congressional office has been the victim of Chinese computer attacks, says he expect to ask Bolden about the incident.

But NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs says the administrator is there to talk about the agency’s appropriations for next year.

“We’re there to talk about the budget,” Jacobs told Discovery News.