By JOSH GERSTEIN
Staff Reporter of the Sun
April 17, 2008
An unusual criminal prosecution concerning a professor's assignment of a
Chinese graduate student to work on an Air Force unmanned drone
technology project is part of an ongoing federal crackdown on China's
efforts to gain American technology through academic exchanges, business
deals, and old-fashioned espionage, officials said.
The Justice Department's latest case, which originated at the University
of Tennessee, is unprecedented, according to several analysts, because
it rests on the notion that academic researchers effectively exported
sensitive technical information by letting a foreign student have access
"It's the first university-based deemed export criminal case I'm aware
of," a Washington lawyer who writes a Web log on export control issues,
R. Clifford Burns, said.
In Knoxville, Tenn., on Tuesday, Daniel Sherman, 37, entered a guilty
plea to conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act while he
served as the director of plasma research at Atmospheric Glow
Sherman and prosecutors said the conspiracy also involved a professor
emeritus of electrical engineering who ran the plasma laboratory at the
University of Tennessee, J. Reece Roth. In court papers, prosecutors
said Sherman and Mr. Roth agreed to assign a Chinese graduate student,
Xin Dai, to the military project without advising the Air Force or
seeking a special export license.
Mr. Roth has not been charged. His attorney, Thomas Dundon, declined to
The Air Force contracts involved the use of plasma to replace
traditional mechanical flaps on the wings of unmanned aircraft. There is
no suggestion in court papers that the research was classified, but
prosecutors contend it could not legally be exported.
"We have had a slew of cases in recent months and years involving
illegal export of controlled and sensitive technology to China," a
Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said. In recent weeks, charges
have been filed against a former Boeing engineer who allegedly sent
space shuttle technology to China and against a former Motorola employee
who was arrested after trying to fly to China with sensitive company
"There are a number of countries actively seeking out military and
dual-use technology, and China is among the most aggressive," Mr. Boyd
said. "When universities and others have contracts with the U.S.
military to manage sensitive research, they know one of the stipulations
of those contracts is not to disclose to foreign nationals."
Whether Sherman knew, however, is unclear. At a plea hearing Tuesday,
Sherman told a federal judge that he did not know it was illegal to have
a Chinese national working on the Air Force research, according the
Knoxville News Sentinel.
Under federal law, only willful export violations can be prosecuted
criminally, but a prosecutor, Jeffrey Theodore, said case law in the 6th
Circuit allows a prosecution in cases involving "deliberate ignorance"
of the legal requirements.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Sherman and others told the
Defense Department that they were "not proposing to use any non-U.S.
citizen as part of any work" for one Air Force contract. The filings
suggest that Mr. Roth made a similar assurance, but they are not
Mr. Burns said those kinds of statements in contracting documents were
probably not enough to prove a criminal violation. "That sounds like
boilerplate to me," he said. "They probably should have read it, but
Xin Dai reportedly left the university in 2006. He could not be reached
for this article.
The charging document filed against Sherman also notes that an Iranian
student, Sirous Nourgostar, worked in the plasma lab while the Air Force
research was under way.
"I'm not in trouble," Mr. Nourgostar, who still works in the lab, said
yesterday. He said he has no connection to the Iranian government. "I'm
not working for them," he said.
The investigation of Mr. Roth has been watched with some concern in
academic circles since May 2006, when it was reported that customs
agents copied his laptop as he returned from a trip to China and that
search warrants were executed at his office and laboratory.
In July 2006, Mr. Roth told a Web site, Inside Higher Ed, that Air Force
program managers knew he had a foreign student working with him before
the contract was issued. "This whole imbroglio has such heavy police
state overtures," he said.
University officials who monitor compliance with export laws said the
Tennessee case may have arisen because of the involvement of the
for-profit company. Fundamental research universities do for publication
is exempt from export laws, but proprietary data developed for a
particular company enjoys no special treatment.
"If you're blurring the lines between the work you do at one place and
the work you do at another, you can quickly get into trouble," Patrick
Schlesinger of the University of California said. Doing only publishable
research also allows universities to avoid segregating foreigners, a
task that may be impractical in physical science programs where American
citizen students are often a minority. "If we want to preserve that safe
harbor, we also need to be very vigilant," Steven Eisner of Stanford
University said. "This particular case in Tennessee will wake up the
university community to export controls if they weren't aware of it
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