Chinese Grad Student's Work Leads to Criminal Case

Chinese Grad Student's Work Leads to Criminal Case
Chinese Grad Student's Work Leads to Criminal Case 

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 
to it.

"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 
Technologies, Inc.

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 
they didn't."

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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