House Democrats launch probe into NIH and FBI suspecting Chinese Americans of espionage

House Democrats launch probe into NIH and FBI suspecting Chinese Americans of espionage
© Greg Nash

A pair of House Democrats on Thursday launched an investigation into alleged efforts by the FBI and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to scrutinize ethnically Chinese scientists for potential espionage.

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben Raskin20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order Senators urge Congress to include election funds in coronavirus stimulus Vote at home saves our democracy and saves lives MORE (D-Md.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Judy ChuJudy May ChuLanguage barriers hamper coronavirus response Democrats push for paid leave in coronavirus response Asian Pacific American Caucus vice chair 'shocked and dismayed' GOP leader referred to 'Chinese coronavirus' MORE (D-Calif.) sent letters demanding documents about the two agencies' investigations into whether Chinese Americans were working as spies on behalf of China.

While the two lawmakers acknowledged that there have been some confirmed cases of espionage, they questioned whether the focus on Chinese Americans amounted to racial profiling.

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“While there are undoubtedly authentic and legitimate cases of espionage that should be investigated, these reports have created serious concern that innocent people are being swept up in this initiative,” Raskin and Chu wrote in the letter to NIH Director Francis Collins.

 
And in the letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, they noted that "the FBI has arrested and charged many Chinese-American scientists who have turned out to be innocent."

They pointed to reports that U.S. intelligence agencies have urged American research universities to monitor students and visiting scholars from institutions affiliated with China.

The New York Times reported last November that the NIH, prompted by the FBI, sent thousands of letters to medical centers around the country asking administrators to investigate individual scientists for intellectual property theft.

Wray warned last year that China's espionage efforts ran the gamut to collect information on American intellectual property.

“China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organizations,” Wray said during a speech last April at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors, all working on behalf of China.”

But some Chinese Americans have been accused of sharing information with China, only for the charges later to be dropped.

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Raskin and Chu pointed to cases like one National Weather Service hydrologist who was charged with accessing data on U.S. dams to hand over to China, as well as a Temple University physics professor accused of sharing sensitive information about a superconductor device that later turned out to be concerning a different device that had been publicly available for years. In both cases, the charges were dropped but the accused scientists faced retribution at their jobs.

A Harvard University professor and two Chinese nationals were indicted late last month in separate cases for allegedly lying about their involvement with the Chinese government.

The Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, was accused of working with multiple Chinese organizations and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars while his research group at Harvard received more than $15 million in funding from the NIH and Defense Department.

The two Chinese nationals worked as scientific and cancer researchers and were accused of intellectual property theft on behalf of the Chinese government. Yanqing Ye, who worked as a scientific researcher at Boston University, admitted that she was a lieutenant with the People's Liberation Army. Zaosong Zheng, a cancer researcher who had been sponsored by Harvard University, allegedly tried to smuggle vials of biological material to China.