NASA Tightens Security in Wake of Chinese Contractor’s Arrest

by

WASHINGTON — Four days after a former NASA contractor was arrested by the FBI after boarding a one-way flight to his native China, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told lawmakers the agency is tightening security procedures to prevent unauthorized access to U.S. technology by certain foreign citizens.

For a start, Bolden has directed NASA officials to review what access individuals from “certain designated countries” have to agency facilities. Nations Bolden mentioned include China, Burma, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. While the review is ongoing, people from these countries may not be issued new NASA access credentials, Bolden said March 20 at a hearing of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.

Bolden also ordered NASA’s Technical Reports Database, an extensive online archive of agency engineering data, closed to the public until further notice. NASA is also evaluating whether to begin an independent review of the agency’s security procedures after allegations of export control breaches at NASA field centers were made public by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the subcommittee’s chairman. An internal security review led by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot is already underway.

“This is about national security, not about NASA security,” Bolden told Wolf and other lawmakers at the hearing. “And I take that personally.”

Meanwhile, the former NASA contractor, a Chinese national named Bo Jiang, was indicted March 21 in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va. Jiang plans to plead not guilty to the single felony charge he faces, the Associated Press reported March 21, citing Jiang’s lawyer Fernando Groene of Fernando Groene P.C., Norfolk, Va. Groene did not reply to multiple requests for comment from SpaceNews.

Wolf, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, announced in a March 18 press conference that the FBI arrested Jiang March 16 at the Dulles International Airport outside Washington. Jiang was taken into custody because because he “lied to federal law enforcement authorities” about computer hardware he planned to take with him to China, court papers allege.

Jiang was carrying a laptop, two computer hard drives, a subscriber identity module, or SIM, card and an iPod that he did not tell law enforcement officials about during a consensual search aboard the plane that would have carried him to Beijing, according to court filings.

The FBI will be investigating the contents of the computer hardware confiscated from Jiang — which the bureau says is material to the investigation it opened in response to Wolf’s allegations — to determine whether it contained any data subject to U.S. export control laws, Wolf said at the press conference.

According to a complaint signed by FBI Special Agent Rhonda Squizzero, federal agents learned March 15 that Jiang “ was leaving the United States abruptly to return to China on a one-way ticket” the following day.

Wolf first identified Jiang during a March 13 hearing on alleged security violations at NASA field centers — one of multiple hearings he has held on the subject this year.

The 31-year-old Jiang, Wolf first alleged at a March 7 press conference, had unauthorized access at Langley to NASA data and technology, some of which he might have brought back to China. Wolf cited whistleblower reports from NASA employees at the aeronautics research center as the source of this information.

Wolf added March 18 that a Langley official, whom he declined to name, sought exceptions to NASA security protocol on Jiang’s behalf. Wolf cited internal agency emails as the source of that information.

The congressman was particularly incensed by the idea that Jiang’s contract was funded by U.S. tax dollars.

“This may be the very first time there has been a spying case subsidized by the U.S. government,” Wolf said at the press conference.

Meanwhile, Squizzero’s complaint says the FBI reviewed the Langley whistleblower reports it received from Wolf’s office March 13 and found the information in them “reliable.” The reports played a part in the bureau’s decision to arrest Jiang, the complaint says.

At the March 13 hearing before Wolf’s subcommittee, Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general, said Langley’s Office of Security Services was investigating whether there had been security breaches at the center, but that agency counterintelligence experts did not believe they were dealing with espionage in Jiang’s case.

One source familiar with the matter said that Jiang’s work at Langley concerned imagery enhancement algorithms, the source code for which Jiang wrote himself. Jiang presented this work publicly at technical conferences after export control compliance experts determined that the information in these presentations was not subject to the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

This source also said Jiang took a laptop belonging to the National Institute of Aerospace with him back to China in December — a violation of his former employer’s security rules that in January cost Jiang his job. No ITAR-restricted data was discovered on the laptop, which government officials examined after Jiang’s return.

The same source identified Chang’s alma mater, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, as the “entity of concern” to which Wolf, in press briefings and congressional hearings over the past several weeks, said Jiang has ties.

The university is located in the south-central China city of Chengdu. Like many others in that country, the school has ties to the Chinese Ministry of Education, according to its English language website.

Timothy Allen, a spokesman for the National Institute of Aerospace, did not reply to requests for comment from SpaceNews.

In a March 18 statement posted to its website, the organization said its “leadership has instituted a review of our internal policies and protocol to identify any measures that can be implemented for further improvement.