A Chinese research scientist employed as a contractor for a Virginia-based firm doing contract work on space defense technology for NASA was nabbed by the FBI last week as he attempted to flee the U.S. to China, possibly with classified information in his possession.
Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chairman of a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee that oversees the NASA budgets, said Bo Jiang worked at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) in Hampton, Virginia, and had access to high-value information. He also alleged that Jiang had brought with him “voluminous sensitive” NASA documents during a trip to China in 2012.
Reports said Jiang had “virtually unlimited, unescorted access to the NASA Langley facility,” which conducts space defense-related projects for NASA. During a subcommittee hearing last week, Wolf said that Jiang may have been hired by the NIA to “circumvent” regulations on the hiring of foreign nationals by the space agency.
The FBI confirmed that Jiang, who is being investigated for violations of the Arms Export Control Act, was “abruptly” attempting to leave the U.S. on a one-way ticket to Beijing on March 16th. Federal agents arrested him while the plane was still on the ground at Dulles International Airport. The FBI began investigating Jiang on March 13th after whistleblowers working at NASA Langley alerted Wolf to his suspicious activities.
The NIA website states that the institute is a non-profit research and graduate education institute that conducts leading-edge aerospace and atmospheric research, and develops new technologies. A “strategic partner” with the NASA Langley Research Center, the institute conducts “a broad range” of scientific and engineering research sponsored by NASA, other government agencies, and the aerospace industry. Its research programs include aeronautical systems, atmospheric science, airspace research, computational science, exploration systems, materials science, planetary science, and technology transfer.
Jiang’s Linkedin profile states that prior to working at NIA, he was at the National Institute of Aerospace at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia — which is affiliated with the NIA — and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC, formerly known as formerly Chengdu Institute of Radio Engineering) in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Some scientists at UESTC, including Wang Wenqin, are known to be strong advocates for near-space SAR remote sensing.
Unconfirmed reports allege that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) holds annual recruiting sessions at UESTC. Although recruiting efforts seem to focus on students with strong computer skills — the Shadows in the Cloud report on Chinese cyber warfare activity has established a connection with the university — it is likely that the PLA will also recruit willing agents to collect sensitive information in other sectors, such as aerospace.
According to the arrest warrant, the 32-year-old Chengdu-born Jiang also attempted to mislead federal agents by not revealing, during a “consensual” search, that he was carrying a portable computer, a disk drive and a SIM card.
Although the contents of the electronic devices Jiang was carrying have yet to be made public, Wolf said the Chinese national was known to have taken sensitive information to China in the past and may have attempted to leak “source code for high-tech imaging technology.” Such information, he said, could be used for applications ranging from space-based orbiters to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Space-based and airborne surveillance, reconnaissance and positioning have been priority areas for the People’s Liberation Army in recent years, as it seeks to strengthen its monitoring capabilities on land and at sea.