One of NASA’s renowned research centers has been under a four-year FBI investigation for the possible transfer of secret weapon-system technology to foreign countries, including China, two Republican congressmen have disclosed.
Reps. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia and Lamar Smith of Texas are citing unnamed sources to accuse employees at the NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley of possibly violating International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Northern California wants to bring criminal charges against NASA employees, but has been blocked by the Justice Department in Washington, the congressmen say.
Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, released a statement to The Washington Times denying that her office had sought an indictment.
“I am aware of allegations our office sought authority from [the Justice Department] in Washington, D.C., to bring charges in a particular matter and that our request was denied,” Ms. Haag said. “Those allegations are untrue. No such request was made, and no such denial was received.”
The congressmen made the charges in two letters dated Feb. 8 — one to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, the other to the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz.
“We have been informed of an investigation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the NASA office of inspector general and other law enforcement agencies have been working on since 2009 relating to the alleged illegal transfer of ITAR-controlled technology by individuals at the NASA Ames Research Center,” the letters say. “It is our understanding that this illegal technology transfer may have involved classified Defense Department weapons system technology to foreign countries, including China, potentially with the tacit or direct approval of the center’s leadership.”
The letters say that “large numbers of foreign nationals are invited to work at NASA Ames the past six years” without security safeguards, and that Ames officials have traveled to conferences in foreign countries and released information about controlled technologies, with Chinese and other foreign officials present.
A congressional source told The Washington Times that the State Department reviewed the information that was transferred to foreigners and confirmed it came under ITAR.
The source said the FBI wanted to bring charges, but the case has stalled in Ms. Haag’s office. Whistleblowers began contacting members of Congress to complain.
The information is thought to pertain to sensitive missile-defense technology, and was conveyed orally and in electronic documents.
Mr. Wolf is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, which funds the Justice Department, FBI and NASA. Mr. Smith is chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
One of NASA’s 10 research centers, Ames is known for developing a wide array of space-flight technologies. It is led by Simon “Pete” Worden, a retired Air Force brigadier general and astronomer. He has set Ames on a new scientific course, especially in the development of lower-cost small satellites that require less rocket lift.
A spokesman at Ames referred questions to NASA headquarters, which declined to comment.
The Wolf-Smith letters, the first public notice of the Ames investigation, gives this chronology:
After opening an investigating in 2009, the FBI referred findings to the local U.S. attorney “more than a year ago.” The prosecutor requested permission from Washington to bring indictments, but was rebuffed recently, and an assistant U.S. attorney on the case was reassigned.
“It is our understanding that after the reassignment, certain defendants and certain charges were dropped from the case without explanation,” the congressmen’s letters say.
The congressmen are asking the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate whether “political pressure may be a factor.” They also say one suspect’s computer hard drive was corrupted by officials handling evidence.