Lax Security and a Laptop of Secrets: Chinese Contractor for NASA Nabbed

A Chinese national affiliated with an “entity of concern” and tied to potential security leaks at NASA was seized by the FBI while trying to leave the country, said a Virginia congressman who has been pressing the space agency about breaches at several NASA centers.

In the process, the troubling case has highlighted just how sensitive information may be compromised by government agencies hiring or contracting with some highly skilled foreign nationals.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, which oversees the space agency’s funding. On Sunday, he learned that Bo Jiang, a 31-year-old contractor at the National Institute of Aerospace, was arrested the day before at Dulles International Airport.

According to the arrest warrant and criminal complaint, Jiang lived a few blocks from Naval Station Norfolk. On March 13, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation into “conspiracies and substantive violations” of the Arms Export Control Act.

Two days later, agents learned Jiang had “abruptly” bought a one-way ticket back to China. He had boarded the flight at Dulles when agents stopped him and searched his belongings, finding more tech items on Jiang than he claimed to officials, including a second laptop computer, a SIM card, and an old hard drive.

The complaint notes that Jiang previously flew back to China once with a laptop belonging to NASA believed to have contained sensitive information.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Jiang got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering in China, then attended Old Dominion University from 2007-2010 to earn his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering.

“Organize tennis tourment [sic] and tennis league for Chinese students and scholars at Norfolk, VA,” he wrote in the “activities and societies” field.

Jiang worked as a researcher at Old Dominion until October 2010 before joining the National Institute of Aerospace as a research scholar at NASA Langley in January 2011. His title changed to research scientist in October 2012. In both positions, he worked on NASA’s aviation safety program.

“I want to commend the federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, DHS and the Customs and Border Patrol agents at Dulles, which is in my district, for their work on this case,” Wolf said at a press conference today. “Additionally, I also want to credit the whistleblowers at NASA who brought Mr. Jiang’s security violations to my attention, which resulted in this investigation.”

Wolf added the Langley Research Center is now reviewing its security protocols including access by foreign nationals.

“I am particularly concerned that this information may pertain to the source code for high-tech imaging technology that Jiang has been working on with NASA. This information could have significant military applications for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” the congressman said.

“I remain concerned that Mr. Jiang was employed by NIA allegedly at the direction of NASA officials in an apparent attempt to circumvent appropriations restrictions the Congress has in place to prevent the hiring of certain foreign nationals of concern. Additionally, it is my understanding that NASA spent more than $200,000 directly on Mr. Jiang’s contract over the last two calendar years.”

Wolf stressed that NIA employs more Chinese nationals aside from Jiang, as do other NASA contractors.

“This begs the question: how many Chinese nationals currently work at NASA? How many other foreign nationals from designated countries work at NASA?” he said. “We have not yet received a response from NASA after the question was raised during our hearing with the IG last week. This case has raised important issues that NASA and the Congress must consider, including whether contractors and universities working with NASA are unwittingly contributing to this problem.”

The solution, he said, must be a complete audit of each of NASA’s contractors employing foreign nationals.

Wolf originally called a press conference back on March 7 after whistleblowers from NASA Langley contacted his office with concerns that a Chinese national — later identified as Jiang — was receiving restricted access and information. In the course of the investigation, the congressman’s office learned there were security rules under which Jiang was granted access to Langley that weren’t followed, such as requiring an escort at all times and allowing access to information only in the public domain.

According to an internal NASA email, a Langley official wrote of Jiang’s access: “I think there are times when rules do definitely apply… and I think there are times for exceptions… I am asking for an exception in this case.”

“I think it would be in the government’s best interests to be able to continue our work with him and the best use of taxpayers money,” the official added.

“Unfortunately, I believe that this lax security culture, as exemplified by these comments, may be a problem at other NASA centers,” Wolf said. “That’s why we need a comprehensive review of security enforcement at all centers and compliance by all contractors employing foreign nationals.”

Jiang was arraigned in federal court Monday afternoon in Norfolk, charged with making a false statement to federal law enforcement officials.

On Wednesday, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. appears before Wolf’s committee to explain the security flaws.

After the first signs of something amiss at Langley, Wolf called for Bolden to take seven steps, including appointing an outside panel to review foreign national access and export controls and stripping access for all foreign nationals with ties to suspect organizations or foreign governments.

While these reviews are being conducted, he said, a moratorium should be placed on the granting of any new credentials to foreign nationals from designated countries of concern.

It’s natural that a whistleblower would pick Wolf for this case: in 2006, the congressman’s office computers were attacked by Chinese government hackers.

Earlier this month, he called the conversation about Chinese espionage “a national conversation that is long overdue.”

“It is these experiences that inform my efforts as chairman of this subcommittee and have resulted in the bill and report language we have carried to help agencies better mitigate potential threats, including the 2011 statute restricting NASA’s collaboration with the Chinese space programs, which is run by the People’s Liberation Army,” Wolf said. “Again, this is the same People’s Liberation Army that is responsible for the repression of the Chinese people, including brutally opening fire on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, and for the espionage operation targeting our country.”

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