Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi is understandably angry with the FBI for filing espionage charges against him, without bothering to consult with duly credentialed experts to understand exactly what he had done.
“I don’t expect them to understand everything I do, but the fact that they don’t consult with experts and then charge me? Put my family through all of this? Damage my reputation? They shouldn’t do this. This is not a joke. This is not a game,” said the professor.
Xi was accused of illegally sharing sensitive American technology with China and charged with four counts of fraud. His actions were not presented as a mistake or minor transgression; prosecutors alleged he was “trying to leverage his access to U.S. trade secrets for lucrative and prestigious postings in China,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it.
That seemed like a stretch given how successful Xi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been in the field of superconductor research and invention. He was, in essence, accused of purchasing a highly sensitive piece of advanced equipment from an American company he used to work for and plotting to sell information about it to Chinese interests connected to the government in Beijing. The fraud counts against him were based on his alleged violation of agreements with the American company that he would not transfer information about their proprietary technology to foreign interests.
The charges against Xi were dropped last Friday, with a bit of hand-waving about “new information coming to light” that sounded like bureaucratic posterior protection to Gizmodo:
This “new information” came in the form of several sworn affidavits from leading scientists confirming that schematics Xi sent to Chinese scientists had nothing to do with the proprietary device. Apparently nobody involved in the investigation thought to run their case past knowledgeable scientific experts before bursting into Xi’s suburban home with guns drawn, ransacking his house, and leading him off in handcuffs in front of his wife and daughter.
Granted that the purchase, and theft, of sensitive technology by China is a big problem, and companies with advanced proprietary technology have good reason to worry about their valuable secrets getting sold to competitors, it is still important to handle these cases carefully, with due appreciation for the importance of expert testimony.
No one can reasonably expect FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors to be experts at cutting-edge superconductor research, but one does expect them to consult with such experts before launching a prosecution that could ruin someone’s life. Xi was demoted from his leadership post at Temple University after the charges were filed, and could have been looking at up to 80 years in prison, plus a million dollars in fines.
The Gizmodo article said it was unclear whether he would be able to resume his former positions at the university, or whether it would assist with his substantial legal fees. He was involved with several projects that could lose federal grant money because his work was interrupted. Vindication is not exactly a happy ending after incurring such emotional, professional, and financial burdens. There are no breezy encounters with the mega-State, and it’s not a cheap date.
As Xi’s lawyer put it, “These weren’t problems that made the case weak; these were problems that made the case non-existent.” He accused the Justice Department of overreacting, and even a bit of racial profiling against Chinese-American scientists. Some physicists quoted by Gizmodo expressed astonishment that qualified scientists were not consulted before charges were filed against Xi.
Xi’s indictment came as a result of emails he wrote while working on behalf of Temple University. Maybe he should have saved himself some trouble by setting up a home-brewed email server in his house to hide his correspondence from official scrutiny.