US's Sorry Record on Catching ‘Spies’ and 'Terrorists'

Last week, US authorities quietly released a Pakistan-born ice cream seller named Hamid Hayat and allowed him to go back to his California valley town of Lodi after 14 years in a federal prison in Arizona.

Hayat was gathered up by FBI agents in 2005 on charges he had trained with terrorists for three to six months during a visit to his home city in Pakistan, although he actually went apparently to look for a bride. The case made national and international headlines. But to say the evidence against him – for plotting violence against the US government – was flimsy is being charitable. It was gathered by an FBI informant who was paid for telling agents that among other things, Osama Bin Laden’s chief deputy had visited Lodi to help to operate the terrorist cell there, a statement so far-fetched as to be laughable.

Hayat’s arrest and conviction owed themselves to hysteria over the Al-Qaeda 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and other targets. They also raise many of the questions posed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency whistle-blower who exposed the extent of global surveillance programs run by the agency with the cooperation of US telecommunications companies and the depth of surveillance of American citizens – and the use of informants who profit from often-imaginative scenarios spun to agents.

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid cases. There are. But the ones that fail are emblematic of the mindset that too often seizes US federal agents and impels them to bring charges against wholly innocent immigrants before equally prejudiced juries. As with Hayat, over-eager agents have often enticed suspects into making wholly-unintended radical statements to be used against them.

In 2007, for instance, six Muslim men were found guilty of conspiring to attack US Army personnel stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey and “kill as many soldiers as possible,” according to local media. Four ended up with life sentences while a fifth was sentenced to 33 years in prison. The sixth received five years in prison. Critics say informants, themselves in danger of being deported and one of whom received US$238,000, simply egged the men into manufacturing a plot none of them had thought of. It was foiled – to great fanfare in the national press – before it ever got past the “planning” stage and the men were arrested. They are continuing to profess their innocence and appealing the case.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 carnage, the suspects – like Hayat– are often Muslim migrants. But they are equally often Asian scientists whose email traffic is apparently monitored by authorities, giving rise to the sardonic comment that they often are accused of “emailing while Chinese.” Many of these cases have later proven to be unfounded despite the damage they have done to innocent lives. They have also led to expensive lawsuits filed against federal officials for false arrest.

Take, for example, Lee Wen Ho, a Taiwan-born scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Lee was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1999 for allegedly stealing secrets about the US nuclear arsenal for the Chinese government. Lee was forced to spend nine months in solitary confinement. The government was unable to prove the initial charges but re-investigated and brought 59 other individual indictment counts against him. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to a single charge of mishandling restricted data.

The government and five news organizations were later forced to pay Lee US$1.6 million for leaking his name to the press before charges had been filed against him. Federal judge James Parker apologized to him for denying him bail and putting him in solitary confinement. The judge excoriated the government for misconduct and misrepresentations to the court, according to news reports.

Nor is Lee alone. A long list of Asian-American scientists have come under suspicion, most of it undue, apparently simply because they are Asian. In May 2015, a physicist named Xiaoxing Xi, the highly-respected interim chairman of the physics department at Temple University in Philadelphia, a naturalized US citizen who is among the world’s leading experts on superconducting thin film, was arrested and charged with attempting to transfer designs for a superconductor device to China. He was jailed but then the charges were abruptly dropped when it became clear that investigators had simply misinterpreted the science involved.

Since 2014, according to a 2018 article in Science Magazine, charges have been dropped against at least five Chinese-born scientists accused of crimes related to secrets, theft or economic spying. A sixth defendant, according to the magazine, a New York University medical-imaging researcher was accused of passing confiden­tial information about magnetic resonance imaging technology to a company in China. As with Lee Wen Ho, he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor.

In several instances, the magazine quoted critics as saying, the US government has charged scientists without under­standing the science at the heart of its allegations. These incidents, and several more like them, precede the administration of US President Donald Trump, who seems conflicted over the FBI’s credibility. He has savaged the organization over its investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election that brought him to power. But at the same time, he has highlighted intellectual property theft by China as a top concern and has accused the appliance-maker Huawei of being in league with the Chinese government to spy on the US and allied countries.

Science cited the sudden dismissal of charges against National Weather Service (NWS) hydrologist Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, who had been accused of passing informa­tion about US dams to a Chinese official, causing 22 members of Congress to sign a letter requesting an investigation into whether federal employees of Asian descent were being targeted.