- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2020

The feds have arrested and/or convicted a slew of Chinese nationals on charges of stealing intellectual property from U.S. businesses, but a pair of top House Democrats balk that the FBI is too tough on friendly visitors from China.

Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Judy Chu of California have sent letters to the FBI and National Institutes of Health as part of an investigation into whether the agencies have racially profiled innocent scientists of Chinese descent.

“The FBI has arrested and charged many Chinese-American scientists who have turned out to be innocent,” the lawmakers wrote last week in a letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.

The investigation comes in the wake of several high-profile cases of U.S. taxpayer-funded researchers accused of spying for the Chinese government or its industries. Currently, the FBI has more than 1,000 open investigations into Chinese intellectual property theft.

• A Harvard-affiliated Chinese cancer researcher was arrested in December with a vial of 21 cells stolen from a Boston hospital laboratory.

• In August, a Chinese professor at the University of Kansas was charged with concealing his ties to a Chinese university so he could continue to collect U.S. tax dollars for his research.

• A Chinese scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, was convicted in June of shipping banned missile technology to his home country.

• A Chinese student at Illinois Institute of Technology was charged last year with recruiting spies for his country’s intelligence agency.

The FBI refused to comment on the letter.

John Brown, the bureau’s assistant director of counterintelligence, told Congress last year that the FBI does not profile Chinese individuals.

“I cannot overstate that ethnicity plays no role in our investigations,” he said. “Instead, we follow the fact and evidence wherever they lead. We have never asked any university, company or other entity to profile people based on ethnicity and we would be appalled if they did.”

But accusations of racial profiling have increased after the Justice Department dropped charges against a string of Chinese scientists whom they later declared innocent.

In 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Indiana dismissed the charges against two former Eli Lilly and Co. scientists accused of stealing company trade secrets. Three years later, a National Weather Service Scientist was cleared on charges of illegally downloading government materials to share with the Chinese.

A Temple University professor is suing the FBI after he was arrested on charges of sharing American technology for a pocket heater. Six months later, federal prosecutors acknowledged they misinterpreted the blueprints for the pocket heater and dropped all charges.

Mary Lovely, who teaches economics at Syracuse University, said the rules governing scientists’ ties to Chinese research institutions are murky and sometimes lead prosecutors to charge people who have made innocent mistakes.

“There should be clear guidance on what is allowable, what is not allowable and what requires more transparency,” she said. “People can stumble into things inadvertently. The rules have to be very clear and if someone violates those clear rules, then you throw the book at them.”

Nicholas Eftimiades, whose 34-year government career includes stints at the CIA and Defense and State departments, said allegations of profiling are ridiculous.

After all, he said, more than 300,000 Chinese researchers are in the U.S. The FBI investigating 1,000 of them would still be less than 1% of the total.

“You could say 1% of any population could be bad, whether it be congressmen, policemen or anything else,” said Mr. Eftimiades.

Last year, the FBI and NIH launched an initiative to expose intellectual property theft at U.S. research institutions. Almost all of the 24 cases the NIH referred for criminal prosecution involved scientists of Chinese descent.

An NIH spokesman said research grants are crucial to U.S. innovation.

“Over the past few years, NIH and other government agencies have been made aware of subversive efforts by foreign entities to target U.S. scientists — primarily but not exclusively of Chinese ethnicity — to intentionally violate the terms and conditions of grant awards for personal again,” she said. “These activities are the antithesis of collaboration.”

Ms. Lovely, the economist, said the FBI needs to strike a delicate balance.

“We really need to get this right,” she said. “Our international graduate students contribute enormously to the scientific enterprise of the United States. If we get this wrong, they will go somewhere else and strengthen the U.K. or Australia.”

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