Mysterious Death in Singapore
|Feb 19, 2013|
A remarkable story in the Financial Times about the mysterious 2012 death of a young American engineer in Singapore has raised serious questions about whether he was murdered to keep him from blowing the whistle on the theft of militarily sensitive technology by a Singapore government-owned research institution and Huawei Technologies, the Chinese tech giant.
The story, nearly 5,500 words in length, was written by former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner and Christine Spolar, the FT's investigations editor. Read it in full here.
In a country where any controversial story invites defamation or contempt of court lawsuits in Singapore courts from the government and/or the family of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the FT story outlines what appear to be serious discrepancies in the investigation by the Singapore authorities into the death of Todd. It also describes concerted moves by the Singapore government and a wide range of other institutions to stonewall outside investigators, including refusing any attempts to bring in the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Given that the death involves a highly regarded Singapore company and its connections to a major Chinese one, it raises serious questions about Singapore-Chinese relations and additional ones about relations between the United States and Singapore. On Sunday, apparently prompted by the newspaper story, the Singaporean police released a statement saying the FBI had been kept "informed" of the murder investigation but offering no details, according to the Financial Times.
"Our procedures for investigating cases, particularly those involving death of persons, are strict and of high international standards. We have handled this case in the same way as other cases that police have looked into," the statement said, as reported by the Financial Times.
The Singapore Straits Times, a quasi-government newspaper, published a prominent article about the FT story with additional inputs yesterday in The Sunday Times, the Sunday edition of The Straits Times. Todd, according to the story, had spent 18 months working with a Singapore government research institute known as IME on a joint project for IME and Huawei, involving an amplifier device powered by gallium nitride (GaN), a semiconductor material able to withstand extreme heat and power levels well beyond silicon.
Gallium nitride devices have both civilian applications and tremendous military significance for use in radar and satellite communications, the story said. Bonner and Spolar's investigation said the 28-year-old Todd had deep misgivings about the project and feared he was compromising US national security.
The Institute of Microelectronics is Singapore's "high-profile high-tech calling card," designed to foster "world-class scientific research," the story said. Sometime in 2011, according to files found on Todd's hard drive, he began to work on what was apparently a joint project between IME and Huawei to develop a GaN amplifier, the story continued. He was tasked with finding equipment pivotal to GaN research. He determined that Veeco, a publicly traded company in New York, manufactured the equipment they needed. While the Veeco technology can be shared during training, the company said, it cannot be shared for technology transfer because of its military implications.
"The situation is complicated," the authors wrote. "Any potential connection with Huawei would be problematic for Veeco and for IME because Huawei has been deemed a security risk by powerful US lawmakers."
Sir Colin Humphreys, the director of research at the Cambridge University Centre for Gallium Nitride, one of the most renowned experts in the world on the cutting-edge technology, reviewed the Huawei project on Todd's hard drive for the FT and said it was a plan for a GaN-based high-electron mobility transistor - an amplifier with commercial and military applications. He said: "You can't say it is 100 per cent for military use. There are many civilian uses." He added: "You would be foolish not to think of military uses because there is a huge market for it."
In weekly Skype calls to his parents in the United States, Todd began sharing misgivings, saying he was collaborating with a Chinese company at IME and felt that representatives asked technical questions and then spoke in Mandarin to exclude him from the conversation.
"I am being asked to do things with a Chinese company that make me uncomfortable," Mrs. Todd recalled him saying. "He said he felt he was being asked to compromise American security."
Several times, according to the article, he told his parents that he felt he was under threat because of his work with the Chinese. "I remember, vividly, him saying to me, ?I am so naive,'" Mr. Todd said. "He thought he had been trained for one purpose that was above board. Then he realized he was being asked to do stuff that could harm his country's national security."
In late February, Todd told his parents and his girlfriend that he was quitting IME and had given 60 days' notice. He then agreed to stay another 30 days because he was the only person trained on the Veeco equipment, his parents said.
Whatever happened, he didn't appear to be suicidal, according to his family, who dispute assertions that he had written suicide notes found on his computer. Shortly before he was scheduled to leave for a new defense-related job in the US, his girlfriend found his body, hanging in his bathroom. His family arrived 48 hours later to discover that the report from the police bore no resemblance to the suicide scene, which appeared to have never been investigated. No police tape was present, the death scene wasn't sequestered. His Singapore flat looked as if he had been packing to leave the city when he died and he had been attempting to sell some of his articles in the flat. Washing was still in the dryer.
From there, Todd's parents and the Financial Times were stonewalled by the police, the Singapore government, the government-owned research institute, Huawei, the Chinese government and the US consulate.
A pathologist speculated that photos of the body showed bruises on the deceased technologist's hands indicated he may have tried to fight off an attacker, and that he was suffocated not by hanging but that he might actually have been garroted and died suddenly.
The Todds sent the pathologist's assessment of their son's death to the Singapore detective in charge of the case, who consulted the Singapore pathologist. The latter sent back a detailed dismissal of the review. The US pathologist hadn't seen the body and he did not know the difference between "findings of hanging as opposed to ? garrotting".
The Todds were left unconvinced. Then Shane's father made an unexpected discovery. Two weeks after Shane's funeral, he found Todd's external hard drive, which the couple had taken from their son's apartment after he died. He had it analyzed by an expert, according to the FT, who found that on June 22 - Shane Todd's last day at IME - thousands of work files were transferred to the hard drive during the day, apparently because he was creating a back-up from his work computer.
Later, in the middle of the night, someone went into the hard drive and accessed five folders, all labeled IME, between 3.40am and 3.42am on Saturday, June 23. Since the time of Shane's death is uncertain, the expert could not say who looked at the IME files.
On the night of June 27, three days after Todd's body was found, there was again activity on the hard drive, according to the FT story, with someone looking at IME folders - including one labeled "Supervisor" and one labeled "Goal Setting" - between 8.38pm and 8.40pm. One file in particular was opened and closed but closed improperly so that a "shadow" file was created. That shadow file was then deleted. It left a "shadow file" on the computer and was identified as a a PowerPoint presentation containing a scientific formula - a specific recipe - for enhancing a GaN chip.
The expert could not completely verify his findings because Todd's computer is in the hands of the police.
The Todds had been sending emails to the Singapore police and the US embassy for months. Both police and embassy officials responded that the investigation was ongoing and embassy officials made clear that there had been "no determination as to whether the death of your son was a suicide or homicide".
Still, the Todds felt the police were not fully considering foul play. So, in December, the Todds flew to Singapore to make the case that their son was murdered. What follows is their version of events. Embassy officials, police and IME would not discuss the Todds' visit with the FT.
The Todds first met embassy consul Craig Bryant, and raised their suspicions about police handling of the case. "Are you saying the Singapore police are corrupt?" Bryant asked. "That's a serious charge."
"Well, my son's death is serious," Mrs Todd replied, surprised by his tone. Mr Todd said he wasn't accusing the police of corruption; he was accusing them of mishandling the investigation.
Two days later, the Todds had a one-and-a-half-hour meeting with US ambassador David Adelman - at one point, Mr Todd broke down in tears. Adelman, a lawyer, said he had trouble believing the police were at fault but expressed surprise when told that they had not searched for fingerprints nor taken photographs of Shane's apartment that night.
The ambassador offered some information that, in turn, surprised the Todds. He said the FBI in Singapore had pushed hard to investigate. He said the FBI offered its assistance, notably in forensics, twice but the Singapore police refused it. The FBI in Washington confirmed that the agency had tried to help.
"The United States has offered FBI assistance to the Government of Singapore on the Shane Todd case and has engaged in frequent discussions with the Government of Singapore regarding Shane's death," read a statement sent to the FT.
The Todds' last meeting was at the IME headquarters, and they laid out what happened in an interview with the FT immediately after. No one else involved would comment. The Todds said IME deputy director Guo-Qiang Lo was present. So was Detective Kahldun. Another police officer was there plus a lawyer, a public relations representative and a human resources liaison from IME.
"We think our son was murdered," Mr Todd began. No one responded. He then read prepared questions from his laptop and typed in the answers.
"When did Shane first meet with Huawei?" Mr Todd asked. "When was his last meeting? Do you know the names of the attendees?"
"I can't comment at this time," the institute's lawyer said. "Because of the police investigation."
"Have the FBI contacted you about the transfer of sensitive technology to China?" "I have no information," the lawyer said.
"Did anybody from IME forbid employees to talk about Shane?" Mr Todd asked. "You can't police these things," the lawyer said.
The meeting was over. The IME lawyer made a final comment that stunned the Todds. "You are not to contact IME again," Mrs Todd recalls the lawyer saying. "There will be no further contact, no more meetings, no more emails."
IME won't answer questions about Shane Todd. IME has been vigilant, though, about keeping tabs on the story. A request from the FT to interview director Dim-Lee Kwong was refused in December. At the same time, IME sent an email to employees stating that an FT reporter might contact them, and that they were forbidden to talk to the media. (A recipient sent a copy to the FT.) The next day, DrKwong called some of Shane's co-workers into his office and said, again, that they were not to speak to reporters, according to one employee at the meeting.
Despite the warnings, an IME employee contacted Shane's parents. That person wrote that Shane's death was "a tragedy" and hard to figure out. "After collecting all information available, I cannot believe it is a suicide case. Actually, no one believes it." The person ended, saying: "I truly hope that [the] FBI can be involved and perform further investigation."
The Todds received an email from the lead Singapore detective telling them that a coroner's inquest into Shane's death would be held in March and asked if they wanted to provide witnesses. He also asked them for the names of Shane's neighbors - seven months after his death, police wanted to interview them - and he requested a piece of evidence. He wanted them to hand over the hard drive they had found.
The Todds wrote back with the names of neighbors they knew. But they believe the loss of their son has national security implications and want it treated as such by Singapore and US authorities. They see Shane's death as a warning to others - young, smart and ambitious - working in the global marketplace of commercial and defense research.
The Todds agree that Shane's hard drive may be a critical piece of evidence in how he died and could shed fresh light on the vulnerabilities of technology safeguards. But they question how the Singapore police have so far investigated Shane's death, so they won't hand over the drive. They are offering, instead, to send a copy of the contents of the drive. In return, they want the Singapore police to send them a copy of all files on Shane's laptops, which are still in police custody. And again, they are asking the Singapore authorities to invite the FBI to help investigate how their son died.
* Correction: Asia Sentinel's original story mistakenly said The Straits Times had not carried a story on tge murder. Corrected on 19 February 2013