UPDATED: Story was updated to include comments the Justice Department’s inspector general made March 14 during a House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee hearing.
WASHINGTON — NASA’s inspector general said March 13 that the agency does not believe it is dealing with espionage at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) alleges a Chinese national working for a NASA contractor had unauthorized access to U.S. technology.
NASA counterintelligence experts “don’t believe it’s an espionage case,” Paul Martin, the agency’s inspector general, said at a hearing here before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.
Nevertheless, Martin agreed after the hearing to open an agency-wide probe into NASA security procedures. The agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) now plans an audit to “more broadly examine NASA’s controls over access by foreign nationals to its facilities,” according to a March 14 letter from Martin to Wolf’s office.
Martin was the sole witness at the hearing, which was convened by subcommittee Chairman Wolf, a fierce China critic who just last month pressed the Justice Department to explain why alleged export control violations at another NASA center have not been prosecuted.
Martin testified a week after Wolf called a press conference to disclose the alleged security breach at Langley, a NASA field center largely focused on aeronautical research. Wolf cited whistleblower reports from “career NASA people” at the center as the source of this information. He said the contractor in question might have taken NASA hardware and research to China. Wolf said Langley employees delivered their report to his office in mid-February, and that this information was immediately shared with the FBI and the NASA OIG.
Martin said NASA headquarters was first informed about security concerns at Langley in mid-December when the OIG was contacted by Langley’s export control office. Officials from NASA headquarters and Langley met Jan. 8 to discuss the case, eventually determining that Langley’s Office of Security Services — which, in consultation with the center’s export control office, determines what level of access onsite workers get — should handle it.
“NASA counterintelligence also was of that opinion,” Martin said.
His explanation was not good enough for Wolf, who said it “runs counter” to the information presented to him by the Langley whistleblowers.
“I think we may have to bring them [the whistleblowers] in and have a public hearing,” Wolf said. “Some are willing to risk their jobs.”
The whistleblowers themselves are not the only people Wolf wants to hear from. The lawmaker has scheduled three more hearings the week of March 18 on NASA security. Wolf has called NASA Administrator Charles, FBI Director Robert Mueller and a panel of “outside witnesses” to testify.
Espionage by foreign nations “is a problem!” Wolf said, pounding the table in front of him. “And I’m not going to stand by, I’m going to pursue this thing!”
Wolf continued pursuit the following day during another hearing, questioning Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz about alleged export control violations at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Wolf sent Horowitz a letter Feb. 8 asking him to investigate whether “political pressure” had played a role in Justice’s decision not to prosecute alleged export control violations at Ames dating back to at least 2009.
Wolf asked Horowitz why he had not responded to the letter. Horowitz said it was not yet clear that he had jurisdiction to review the department’s handling of the case. “This is a significant issue,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is evaluate carefully whether … there [is] a basis for us to exercise jurisdiction.”
If there was any misconduct by a U.S. attorney, the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility would investigate the matter, not the Office of the Inspector General, Horowitz said.
Meanwhile, at the March 13 hearing, Wolf identified the Langley contractor in question as Bo Jiang. Wolf did not say which NASA contractor Jiang was working for while at Langley. Martin said Jiang had unescorted access to the center for about a year, citing information from the Langley security office.
NASA spokesman David Weaver said this month that the individual “no longer works at Langley.”
“We are familiar with the situation involving a Langley contractor, have completed our review and referred the matter to the appropriate law enforcement officials,” Weaver said March 6. He would not identify the contractor or the law enforcement branch to which NASA referred its findings.
Wolf took Martin to task for not pursuing the Langley investigation, and export control violations in general, more aggressively.
“I really do think there is a potential problem in your office,” Wolf said. “We’re going to seek a change, if we think it’s appropriate. I don’t sense that there’s that intensity, with regard to this issue, that I think is appropriate.”
“I respectfully disagree that this Office of the Inspector General is shirking its duties,” Martin said. “We are an aggressive, independent entity out there, securing NASA.”
“Let the record show that we disagree strongly,” Wolf replied.