GOP warns DOJ not to provide ‘amnesty’ to researchers who didn’t disclose China funding
Jerry Dunleavy – 5/6/2021
A group of Republican senators called upon Attorney General Merrick Garland not to implement an “amnesty program” they say the Justice Department is considering implementing in the near future under which researchers at U.S. colleges and universities could disclose past foreign funding, including from China, without fear of prosecution.
The news of potential amnesty for U.S. academics who have received foreign funding without properly reporting it comes a few years after the Justice Department’s establishment of its China Initiative, with a recent Washington Examiner review detailing how federal prosecutors had been going after professors and other people with connections to China’s Thousand Talents Program or the People’s Liberation Army, as the Chinese Communist Party has sought to steal U.S. research and technology to add to its wealth and increase its military might. The GOP letter said that the “DOJ is planning to implement this amnesty program within the next few weeks.”
The Republicans said this potential amnesty had first been hinted at in a Wall Street Journal article from January and that “high-level officials” such as John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security and head of DOJ’s China Initiative, have recently “circulated a draft proposal for it.” The outlet said that it “could allow investigators to ascertain the scope of foreign money funding U.S. research, and help FBI agents focus on the people they believed posed the greatest national security threats.”
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“We are concerned about the effect that this amnesty program will have on those ongoing criminal cases and the signal that it sends to future researchers contemplating breaking U.S. law to steal research or hide affiliations with foreign governments or militaries,” read the letter signed by GOP Sens. Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, Tom Cotton, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, Todd Young, and Chuck Grassley.
The letter also pointed to a section in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, as well as a section in the NDAA from a year ago for 2020, arguing that the DOJ would be ignoring the wishes of Congress to crack down on foreign influence on campus if this amnesty was granted, since Congress recently “took action to deter foreign influence in academia.”
The NDAA signed into law in January included an enhancement of an initiative “to support protection of national security academic researchers from undue influence and other security threats.” The law included requiring the defense secretary to “establish an initiative to work with institutions of higher education who perform defense research and engineering activities” and to “support protection of intellectual property, controlled information, key personnel, and information about critical technologies relevant to national security” while seeking to “limit undue influence, including through foreign talent programs, by countries to exploit United States technology within the Department of Defense research, science and technology, and innovation enterprise.”
The recently passed law also called for “policies to limit or prohibit funding provided by the Department of Defense for institutions or individual researchers who knowingly violate regulations developed under the initiative, including regulations relating to foreign talent programs” and the compiling of a list of academic institutions from China and elsewhere that “have a history of improper technology transfer, intellectual property theft, or cyber or human espionage.”
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“Yet despite these congressional initiatives — as enacted in recent laws — DOJ has not consulted with Congress on this amnesty program,” the Republican senators said. “It is also our understanding that DOJ did not properly consult with the relevant Inspector General community. Inspectors General from large grant-making agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, are on the front lines of combating grant fraud by corrupt researchers seeking to take advantage of the openness and funding that the U.S. research enterprise provides.”
The Justice Department’s China Initiative has been shining the spotlight on the Chinese Communist Party’s coordinated and multifaceted efforts to steal research and technology from academic institutions across the country, with prosecutors mounting aggressive efforts over the past few years to crack down on Chinese malign influence at U.S. universities.
The GOP letter and the Wall Street Journal article both referenced the DOJ’s case against Gang Chen, a top professor within the mechanical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was “charged by criminal complaint with wire fraud, failing to file a foreign bank account report, and making a false statement in a tax return,” the Justice Department said in January, “in connection with failing to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards from various entities in the People’s Republic of China to the U.S. Department of Energy.” At times, the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Massachusetts said in a statement, Chen was working directly at the behest of Chinese government officials while receiving millions both from the U.S. government and from a Chinese university.
“Why have we, a group of MIT faculty, signed a letter in support of Gang Chen? Because if such a prominent citizen of our country, a loyal American, a person who has raised his children here, a beloved teacher and scientist who has dedicated his creativity and energy to his students and MIT and this country, is criminally targeted for routine scientific and educational activities, we are all at risk,” read a January letter signed by more than two dozen MIT faculty.
The GOP senators called the possible amnesty a “significant and potentially deleterious impending policy change” and asked for a briefing on the “scope, nature, and timeline of DOJ’s amnesty program” by May 12.
“We are aware of the letter and have no comment,” a DOJ spokesperson told the Washington Examiner on Thursday.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Portman, released a 109-page bipartisan report in November 2019, finding that China used its Thousand Talents Program over the past two decades to exploit access to U.S. research labs and academic institutions. The FBI has deemed the Chinese effort to be a form of “nontraditional espionage.”
“This is a complex problem, but an amnesty program rewarding individuals who broke federal law to steal U.S. taxpayer-funded research is simply not the answer,” read the GOP letter.