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Justice Department drops China spy program as an ex-target

The Justice Department has ended a controversial program to find Chinese spy spies, which was launched by the Trump administration.

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Justice Department drops China spy program as an ex-target

The "China Initiative" was created to address a top national security priority: prosecuting and identifying those responsible for China’s widespread theft of trade secrets and intellectual property worth hundreds of billions of US dollars per year.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that the program would be shut down. This announcement came after an exclusive interview on Wednesday morning on CBS Mornings with Gang Chen, MIT professor.

Chen claims that the case against Chen was dropped because it highlighted the possibility of bias in an attempt to stop Chinese espionage at American universities.

More than 10 federal agents arrived at Chen’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home on January 14, 2021. They blocked off the streets around Chen and made their way up the narrow corridor leading to his front door.

Chen said that they arrived in the corridor by following a path I had mapped out. This was his first interview on television. "They asked me if I was Gang Chen. "They asked, 'Are you Gang Chen?' I replied, 'Yes. They said, "Don't move."

Chen, a U.S. citizen, was handcuffed in jail. According to CBS News' analysis of court records, Chen, a world-renowned professor in mechanical engineering, was among more than twenty researchers who were charged under the program. He could spend up to 20 years prison if convicted.

When he launched the China Initiative in 2018, Jeff Sessions, former Attorney General, stated that "Today, Chinese espionage is not only taking place against our defense and intelligence agency targets, but also against targets like research laboratories and universities."

CBS News was told by former Justice Department officials that the prosecutions were intended to convey a message: To discourage the academic community, which could be exploited by China to access cutting-edge technology. However, the cases drew criticisms for racial profiling and, according to Rafael Reif, sent a chill through scientific communities.

Reif stated to CBS News that it was stopping the best talent from the world, which is what we need in this nation, from entering this country.

Chen was charged with failing to disclose several ties to China in an Energy Department grant application for 2017. Also, Chen was accused of failing disclosure to a foreign account on a 2018 tax form.

Chen stated, "We thought that we had achieved American Dream." "But this nightmare happened."

He was forced to take a nearly one-year academic leave while federal charges were hung over his head. CBS News has seen documents that reveal Chen was told by an Energy Department official in January that they had made mistakes. Chen wasn't required to divulge any affiliations.

Two weeks later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Chen. This is the eighth case the department dropped against Chinese-born researchers over the past year.

The Justice Department denied bias in China Initiative cases.

In October, Attorney General Merrick Garland stated to lawmakers that "we never investigate or prosecute based upon ethnic identity, what country a persons is from."

CBS News reached out last week to the department. A spokesperson for CBS News stated that the department had completed an internal review of China Initiative.

Matt Olsen, the head of DOJ's national-security division, said Wednesday that an internal review of China Initiative cases found no evidence of racial bias. He said that the Initiative was "myopic" and chilled scientific research. This created the impression that the department used different standards for people of Chinese origin.

Olsen stated that anything that gives the impression that the Department of Justice has different standards for racial or ethnicity is harmful to the departments and their efforts, and harms both the public and the department.

Loyalty questioned

Although Chen was not accused of spying, the complaint that Chen faced from prosecutors did not include that accusation. However, Chen was treated as a national security risk on the day of his arrest. Agents in Chen's house ordered him to sit in a corner as they tried to wake his wife and daughter.

Chen said that Chen was lying in bed with his wife. Chen said that Chen told her when she heard the man shout, "Police!" Police! "She thought she was in an imaginary dream."

Andrew Lelling, the then-U.S. attorney, explained how the government saw the stakes in Chen's case during a press conference after Chen was arrested.

Lelling stated that the allegations in the complaint suggest that it was not about greed but about loyalty towards China.

Chen called Lelling’s comments "an insult."

Chen stated, "They paint me disloyal toward U.S.A. and loyal to China." "There are no facts in their statements."

Chen, who was made a U.S. citizen by the United States in 2000, denied being a Chinese spy. He also stated that he had never provided China with any technology or proprietary research.

Chen, who studies heat transmission, said that she fell in love with the country during her graduate studies. "My wife fell in Love with this Country and we decided to Stay and Build Our Family Here."

"A massive jolt"

Reif at MIT said Chen's arrest was a "massive jolt." Reif believed Chen had done nothing wrong and decided that the school would pay for his legal fees.

Reif stated that he felt the attack was directed at all Chinese Americans living in America, especially in academia. "I felt that it was in some way an attack on all foreign-born Americans in America. They are being told, "We don't really believe you."

Chen was almost a year old when he first discovered he was being investigated by the federal government in January 2020. While returning from a trip in China, Egypt, and Morocco with his family, Chen was stopped at Boston's Logan Airport by Homeland Security agents.

Chen stated that she felt very uneasy. "They took my whole family to a separate area and we sat there for several hours. "I couldn't even use the bathroom."

He was asked by an agent to hand over his phone and computer, and about his trip to China. He claimed he was in China on business for MIT and meeting with SusTech, a Chinese university located in Shenzhen.

Prosecutors claimed Chen was hiding his role as SusTech's adviser and he received $19 million for the collaboration.

Reif stated that this was the moment when he realized the Justice Department had made a mistake. Chen was working on the collaboration while the money went to MIT. The collaboration was advertised even on the MIT website.

Reif stated that Reif was doing this as part of his job. "Professors search for money and make proposals. They then work with students to improve science."

Reif acknowledged that China is a potential threat to American intellectual property. However, he said that the Justice Department's approach was similar to using a hammer to solve a problem.

Reif stated, "We have a problem in China." "We don't play by the same rules. "We are not playing by the same rules," I am stating.

The case is broken

Justice Department prosecutors interviewed Dr. Anthony Schwartz on January 4. He is an official at the Office of Science of Energy Department, which oversees grant applications.

According to a memo compiled by the Energy Department InspectorGeneral and reviewed by CBS News, prosecutors asked Schwartz questions about seven affiliations Chen allegedly concealed on a grant application in 2017 and a follow up progress report in 2019.

Schwartz stated to prosecutors that he didn't believe Chen was required disclose any of the seven affiliations in either the application or the follow up progress report.

Rob Fisher, Chen's lawyer, stated to CBS News that Chen never concealed anything he did.

Fisher was released after prosecutors called Fisher within weeks to inform him that all charges had been dropped and that Fisher was now free. Fisher stated that a complete and unambiguous dismissal is rare and indicates that a serious mistake was made.

The Biden-appointed U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rolleins announced the dismissal of Chen's charges. She stated that her office had received new information and decided they couldn't meet their burden of proof at the trial.

Rollins stated that prosecutors have an obligation to examine all matters and be open to new information. "We know that our charges have a profound impact on the lives of people."

Since then, the Justice Department initiated an internal review of all aspects of the program. The results are expected to be announced Wednesday. Lelling, who left to pursue private practice, declined to interview but stated in a recent post that the China Initiative had "drifted", and that the DOJ should "revamp, and close down" parts of the program to prevent needlessly chilling scientific collaborations with Chinese business partners.

Olsen stated that the Justice Department would continue China cases under the banner "broader approach" to combating foreign threats. This includes nationals such as Russia and Iran.

He stated that the Department would take an "active supervisory role" in research integrity cases going forward to ensure there is "intent or materiality". He suggested that administrative or civil remedies may be more appropriate in some cases. Chen stated that he felt relief after the charges were dropped but still believes he shouldn't have been charged.

CBS News' analysis revealed six China Initiative cases against researchers. Three of them are American citizens of Chinese heritage. Olsen declined to comment on the pending cases but stated that the Department will continue to prosecute cases that were brought under the now-retired program.

Chen is still worried about the reputational damage that the whole incident has caused. Chen said he has been able to return to teaching at MIT for the semester but is still haunted from the arrest.

He said, "I'm not the Gang Chen I used to be before." "From my family, the trauma that we have experienced, and the fear we still feel, to my professional career. My research group has been extinguished. I won't be the same person as before."


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