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.