Thu, Sep 17, 2015 - Page 9 News List

US drops spy charges against Chinese-born physicist

The government’s key evidence against Xi Xiaoxing on charges of passing the design of a pocket heater to China turned out to be the blueprints for another, non-secret device

By Matt Apuzzo  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Mountain People

When the US Department of Justice arrested the chairman of Temple University’s physics department this spring and accused him of sharing sensitive US-made technology with China, prosecutors had what seemed like a damning piece of evidence: schematics of sophisticated laboratory equipment sent by the professor, Xi Xiaoxing (郗小星), to scientists in China.

Prosecutors said the schematics revealed the design of a device known as a pocket heater. The equipment is used in semiconductor research, and Xi had signed an agreement promising to keep its design a secret.

Months later, long after federal agents had led Xi away in handcuffs, independent experts discovered something wrong with the evidence at the heart of the department’s case: The blueprints were not for a pocket heater.

Faced with sworn statements from leading scientists, including one of the inventors of the pocket heater, the department on Friday last week dropped all charges against Xi, a US citizen.

It was an embarrassing acknowledgment that prosecutors and FBI agents did not understand — and did not do enough to learn — the science at the heart of the case before bringing charges that jeopardized Xi’s career and left the impression that he was spying for China.

NOT A GAME

“I don’t expect them to understand everything I do,” 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.”

The US faces an onslaught from outside hackers and inside employees trying to steal government and corporate secrets. US President Barack Obama’s strategy to combat it involves aggressive espionage investigations and prosecutions, as well as increased cyberdefenses.

However Xi’s case, coming on the heels of a similar case that was dismissed a few months ago in Ohio, raises questions about whether the department, in its rush to find Chinese spies, is ensnaring innocent US citizens of Chinese ancestry.

A spokeswoman for Zane Memeger, the US attorney in Philadelphia who brought the charges, did not elaborate on the decision to drop the case.

In court documents, the department said “additional information came to the attention of the government.”

The filing gives the government the right to file the charges again if it chooses. A spokesman for US Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, who is overseeing the crackdown on economic espionage, had no comment on whether department officials in Washington reviewed the case.

The science involved in Xi’s case is, by any measure, complicated. It involves the process of coating one substance with a very thin film of another.

RUSH TO JUDGEMENT

Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said that despite the complexity, it appeared that the government never consulted experts before taking the case to a grand jury. As a result, prosecutors misconstrued the evidence, he said.

Zeidenberg, a partner in the Washington-based firm Arent Fox, represented both Xi and Sherry Chen, a US government hydrologist who was charged and later cleared in the Ohio case.

A long-time federal prosecutor, Zeidenberg said he understood that agents felt intense pressure to crack down on Chinese espionage, but the authorities in these cases appeared to have been too quick to assume their suspicions were justified.

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