Feds Bust Harvard Prof in Connection With Alleged Chinese Spy

Recently, several FBI agents walked into Harvard’s Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory at 12 Oxford Street in Cambridge.

When they walked out…

They had arrested professor Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Lieber was charged with making a fraudulent statement in connection with People’s Republic of China. Bail was set at $1 million.

Caution, per the U.S. Department of Justice, “Details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.”

Still, there’s a worrisome story here. It may just boil your blood. Let’s dig in…

You won’t be surprised to learn that the U.S. government periodically arrests people and charges them with spying for China. After all, every country has spies. Sometimes, we catch ’em.

But this particular alleged spy is a distinguished professor at Harvard. Indeed, he’s a very big cheese.

He holds a PhD in Chemistry from Stanford, with post-doc work at Cal Tech. Later he worked at Columbia, and he’s been at Harvard since 1991.

At Harvard, Lieber pioneered development of what are called “nanoscale materials.” These are microscopic materials — even microscopic “machines” — that are far less than the width of a human hair. They have applications in material and biological science; they definitely have military applications.

Lieber worked to characterize unique physical properties of nano-materials. He developed methods to assemble them. Lieber’s work includes applications in nanoelectronics, nanocomputing, biological/chemical sensing, neurobiology and nanophotonics.

Over the years, Lieber has won a long list of awards. He’s an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Indeed, Lieber is absolute crème de la crème of American science.

In addition to burnishing Harvard’s reputation for world-class science, Lieber’s efforts have brought in significant funding. According to court documents, between 2008 and 2017 Lieber and his Harvard research group received over $15 million in funding from the NIH and DOD.

Per the Wall Street Journal, Lieber’s research sponsors included the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

There’s a catch to that government money, though. The grants require disclosure of foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or entities.

That’s exactly what Lieber stands accused of… and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Specifically, Lieber was arrested for lying to the Defense Department (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about ties he had with China’s so-called “Thousand Talents Plan” (TTP).

China set up TTP in 2008. It’s a strategic program to attract top-flight scientists from across the world to work in China, or at least with Chinese scientists.

In practice, Chinese universities and companies offer generous salary packages to outsiders, plus funds for travel and housing, build-to-spec labs and ample trained (Chinese) personnel. Many recruited scientists are Chinese; sort of a “come home to China” effort. But many other targeted individuals are not Chinese, like Philadelphia-born Lieber.

The Chinese plan is straightforward: to bring cutting-edge new science and engineering into China for commercial and military purposes.

The U.S. government, on the other hand, has designated China’s TTP program a danger to national security.

According to a statement by the FBI, “No country poses a greater, more severe, and long-term threat to our national security and economic prosperity than China. China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, and they’re breaking the law to get there.”

Naturally, then, the U.S. government likes to know if anyone on its payroll might be helping China get that edge.

It now seems Lieber was doing just that.

In 2011, Lieber became a “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China. (Yes, that Wuhan!)

The U.S. criminal complaint also states that Lieber had a “Thousand Talents” contract from 2012 to 2017.

But in April 2018, according to the complaint, Lieber told government investigators that he was never asked to participate in the TTP.

Then in November 2018, NIH asked Harvard whether Lieber had disclosed his then-suspected relationship with WUT and China’s TTP. Nope… Lieber hadn’t told Harvard, and even denied to Harvard administrators that he was associated with TTP.

In turn, Harvard advised NIH that Lieber “had no formal association with TTP or WUT.” Per official documents filed with NIH, Harvard declared that Lieber “is not and has never been a participant in” China’s TTP.

Could this all be a case of an understandable oversight? After all, the mainstream press is always trying to vilify politicians by tying them to the day’s persona non grata.

Just being in the same room or posing for a one-off picture with someone is often trumped up — so to speak — to imply a deep personal connection between the people in question.

This, however, doesn’t appear to be a case where tenuous, casual connections slipped Lieber’s mind.

WUT paid Lieber $50,000 per month, living expenses of about $158,000 and over $1.5 million to establish a research lab.

In return, Lieber worked extensively for WUT. He performed research and supervised Chinese teachers and Ph.D. students. Lieber also organized conferences, applied for patents and published articles in the name of WUT.

He even set up a nanotechnology lab in the joint name of Harvard-WUT, for which he served as executive director.

But Lieber lacked authority to set up anything, or contract on behalf of Harvard. When Harvard administrators confronted Lieber about the lab and his affiliations in China, Lieber said that WUT was using the Harvard name without his knowledge, according to the U.S. criminal affidavit.

Meanwhile, back at Harvard, 12 out of 14 students in his so-called “research group” are Chinese.

Harvard, needless to say, is not amused…

Remember, it vouched for Lieber, which places the famous institution squarely in the crosshairs of a federal crackdown.

Harvard could be accused of misrepresenting facts to the government. And Harvard could be barred from receiving federal grants.

Per the Crimson, “Lieber is not allowed on Harvard’s campus and will not continue his teaching and research duties. … ‘The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,’” according to a university spokesman.

Also, there’s a terse declaration from the front office: “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities.” Uh-oh…

So, more charges could be on the way.

For one thing, according to the Wall Street Journal, Lieber’s Chinese pay was deposited into a bank account in China.

Of course, this raises questions of Lieber’s disclosure on his U.S. tax returns, concerning foreign bank accounts, earned income and taxes paid or not.

When U.S. investigators sit down with Lieber and/or his lawyers, they have plenty to dangle as prosecution-bait. Consider…  Lieber could be charged with tax evasion. Or money laundering. Obstructing a federal investigation. Perjury. Misrepresentation. Espionage. Bribery. Denial of honest services. Conspiracy. Wire fraud. Theft. Even witness intimidation.

A creative federal prosecutor could line up charges that would send Professor Lieber from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Florence, Colorado, for a very long time.

It’s what’s known in the law business as “leverage.”

So, what’s the roadmap from here?

Before things get too inflamed, U.S. investigators must do what’s called “walk the cat backwards.” That is, they must find out what levels of science and technology Lieber passed along to his Chinese colleagues.

How much advanced research got loose? What did Lieber do for the Chinese? What did he tell them? With what developments did he assist? Who did he train? What are his Chinese colleagues working on now? All this, and much more…

Then comes the investigation of Lieber’s associates.

As one observer noted, “How likely is it that other faculty members, chemists with whom [Lieber] interacts on a regular basis, his own graduate students and department staff (who he presumably appointed) were unaware of something that could be read off a web site? What about administrators involved in department finances, faculty travel and visas? What about his commercial activities and interests? Lieber was anything but a one-man show.”

In short, arresting Lieber is just the beginning of a massive federal investigation into Chinese espionage.

According to Andrew Lelling, federal prosecutor in Boston, “This is a small sample of China’s ongoing campaign to siphon off American technology and know-how for Chinese gain. … Chemistry, nanotechnology, polymer studies, robotics, computer science, biomedical research; this is not an accident or a coincidence.”

Many U.S. scientists have ties with Chinese universities and institutions. By arresting Professor Lieber, U.S. counter-intelligence and law enforcement are ringing a bell that sounds nationally.

That is, the U.S. government has begun a pushback against China by taking down one of the top scientists at one of the nation’s — the world’s — top universities. Clearly, the feds are not fooling around.

The effort is long overdue, some might say. China’s TTP is one of the boldest, most prominent efforts in history to pirate ideas, technology and fundamental national capabilities. It’s brazen.

Meanwhile, the feds busted the head of chemistry at Harvard, where 160 faculty members have been awarded Nobel Prizes over the past century. And where 36 alumni and/or faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alone.

Now, add one red-hot Chinese spy to the list. With more to come. This ain’t over by a long shot…

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now.  Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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