Space spy? NASA researcher, a Chinese national, arrested on plane bound for China

Aerospace contractor Bo Jiang, who is accused by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) of being a spy, made a first appearance in federal court on Monday. The Chinese national worked on contract at NASA's Langley's Research Center in Hampton, VA.

Federal agents grabbed him over the weekend just as he was boarding a flight from Dulles airport (in DC) to Beijing. He is charged with making false statements to U.S. authorities by failing to disclose all of the electronic devices he was carrying on his one-way flight, and has since been jailed.

From congressman Wolf's statement, which references the text of the federal warrant:
On Friday, March 15, federal agents learned that Mr. Jiang "was leaving the United States abruptly to return to China on a one-way ticket."

On Saturday, March 16, Mr. Jiang traveled by plane from Norfolk to Dulles to connect to a flight to China. While at Dulles he boarded a plane to Beijing. During a "border stop," federal agents conducted a search of Jiang's personal items.

And I'm quoting now directly from the arrest warrant: "During the consensual encounter, federal agents asked Jiang what electronic media he had with him. Jiang told the Homeland Security agent that he had a cellphone, a memory stick, and external hard drive and a new computer. However, during the search, other media items were located that Jiang did not reveal. Such items include an additional laptop, an old hard drive and a SIM card."

The warrant also notes that the FBI "believes this to be material to the federal investigation, in that it was important to learn what electronic media Jiang was taking out of the United States." It also mentions that agents are aware that Mr. Jiang previously traveled to China with a laptop belonging to NASA that agents believe to have contained sensitive information.

NASAWatch has links to all the early coverage.

CBS News has an updated account here. The Atlantic has an explainer post here, and the arrest warrant.

Sen. John Kerry has a planned trip to China coming up in the next few weeks. I'd imagine the Chinese government will not be happy about this case, which by any measure has so far provided all involved with more questions than answers.

(Thanks, Aileen Graef)



  1. This smells funny. “Failing to disclose all of the electronic devices he was carrying” could well describe his car keys, FFS, which fits the bill but is something most of us would fail to indicate on a customs form. So, what evidence does anyone have that he is, in fact, a spy? 

      1. knowing how to click through sounds like something a SPY would know how to do! *eyes Xeni suspiciously*

      2. I stand revealed as an idjit, as I had not RTFA before posting. Thank you for the deeper explication. 

        I’m still going to remember to claim my car key if ever asked that question, though…

      3. I found it weird that he did specify both laptop and external harddrive, but the problem was that they found two of each. Besides, he seems extremely well qualified, working with machine vision for aviation safety. Seems USA benefitted quite a lot from this person. This walks and talks like xenophobia. This bureacracy was forced upon NASA setting cooperation between USA and China back a lot.

        1. Is it possible there is a language issue – in how Mandarin handles plural nouns, in how he might have heard the question, or in his accent or manner of response – that he might have in all honesty said he had a laptop and an external drive, meaning that he had laptops and external drives.

        2. That’s because he was questioned during layover, and he described what he had with him in the carry on.

      4. The NASA laptop was from a previous academic trip, and the use was cleared. Thanks to bias media effort to smear him, he had it on this trip (why wasn’t he charged with stealing government property then?)

        This is a witch hunt.

        The FBI is using a trumped up charge to perform illegal search and seizure:

        1) According to Bo Jiang’s friends (source MITBBS, an overseas scholar message board), Jiang went to NASA with his professor. His boss died in a car accident and his employment contract was not renewed. Without valid work visa Jiang had to go back to China (and there’s no reason to buy a round trip ticket.)

        2) The lying to investigator charge is bogus. Jiang was questioned during a layover, and he described to the FBI what he had with him in the carry on. Now the FBI is charging him because he didn’t mention what was in the checked luggage? It’s not even omission based on the context of the conversation.

        3) There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation why Jiang had two SIM cards – he canceled his cell phone contract and was using a prepaid SIM card for the last few weeks in the States.

  2. Read the press release?  The money quote from the arrest warrant says:

    During the consensual encounter, federal agents asked Jiang what electronic media he had with him.  Jiang told the Homeland Security agent that he had a cellphone, a memory stick, and external hard drive and a new computer.  However, during the search, other media items were located that Jiang did not reveal.  Such items include an additional laptop, an old hard drive and a SIM card.

    Not saying he is a spy, but ‘forgetting’ that much electronic equipment is probably flag-raising for the DHS agent.

    EDIT: I make commenting fail.

  3. I’ve left the USA with a laptop and I didn’t have this hassle. If there had been any secrets to hide then any half decent spy would have sent them electronically.

    1. Yeah, it seems strange to me that if you have the laptop in your hands you can’t anonymously upload an encrypted file to dropbox at a wifi hotspot and avoid having to lug around the actual hardware. 

    2. There are definitely some understandable questions about NASA property leaving the country in the hands of a contractor who is a foreign national. Whether the dude is a spy or not, I have no idea.

        1.  I’ve purchased one-way tickets to handle family emergencies. Without speculating, all I can say is that a one-way ticket is not a crime (though it is suspicious).

          1. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that there may have been additional information that made the situation not smell right to investigators.

          2. Additional information so compelling that it would make “he didn’t tell us about his SIM card” look like very weak grounds for an arrest?
            I hope the judges don’t forget to ask for that secret but compelling evidence.

        2. Given that a one-way ticket is such an obvious red flag, wouldn’t a half-decent spy purchase a round trip and then discard the return leg? I guess this falls under the “maybe he was just a really bad spy” theory.

          Problem is, the story has gotten enough exposure now that I wonder if it’ll be hard for the FBI to suck it up and admit fallibility if the guy actually is just some poor sap with a laptop and not a spy.

          1. >buys one-way ticket when round-trip would be less suspicious
            >irl file transfer, not using encrypted upload to storage locker
            >bungles TSA questioning

            this sounds less like Bo Jiang was a spy and more like China said “we want you to deliver info to us or life gets really unpleasant for you and your family.”  knowing this scenario exists, why is NASA hiring chinese nationals?

          2. I’m pretty sure that describes many spying situations.  Also suicide bomber situations.

          3. > knowing this scenario exists, why is NASA hiring chinese nationals?

            Maybe because there are a lot of smart, talented, highly-educated Chinese nationals who want jobs? And because Chinese nationals are not unique in their vulnerability to blackmail?

          4. You (by which I mean the government) can’t use “foreign national” as a reason to arrest someone and, at the same time, spout reasons why they’re good hires. It’s one or the other.

          5. You’d think a one-way ticket would be an obvious and notorious red flag, such that malefactors would avoid it – but the 9/11 hijackers had one-way tickets, and iirc the Shoe Bomber did as well, some years later.

            I flew halfway across the country a few months after 9/11, to pick up a car; that one-way ticket definitely got me extra scrutiny, and I’m about as obviously harmless as they come.

        3. He might do that if he expected to get a cheaper ticket in China for the return flight to the US. My wife’s family tend to buy their AU-MY tickets in Malaysia because they are much cheaper.

      1. Doesn’t the teabagger congressman — spouting alleged conspiracy details that law enforcement would presumably like to keep quiet during investigation — ring some kind of skeptic-alarm for you, though?

        1. Wolf is a Republican, but he’s no teabagger.  He’s been in office for decades, and is one of the more reasonable members of his party.  He represents Fairfax County, VA – my old stompin grounds – and about a million federal employees.  He’s got some foreign policy chops too, if I recall.

          1. I don’t like his tone with, “This begs the question: how many Chinese nationals currently work at NASA? How many other foreign nationals from designated countries work at NASA?” We need to protect ourselves against spies, it’s true, but to me this kind of language has the ring of xenophobia because it puts the focus on people rather than governments.

    3. Perhaps he was under surveillance?

      This sounds sort of like the espionage equivalent of asking a shoplifter “what do you have in your pocket?”

    4. Depends on the data. If it’s a couple word documents then of course there were better ways. If it’s a couple TB of simulation or engendering data that is tied to specific NASA developed internal software on the laptop then there were not really better options.

      1. A letter with a few micro-SD cards mailed from a random post box?

        We still allow mail to China, right?

      2. Spies have handlers. Easier in this case to drop off the laptop behind some bins one night and have some tourist bring it (or a copy) back, than have your intel asset deliver it himself.

    1. sounds like a dumb thing for China to do, right?

      edit for disambiguity: originally “sounds like a dumb thing to do, right?”

    1. Or Qian Xuesen.

      NASA employees and contractors travel overseas with their laptops all the time.  Every laptop has FDE, donchaknow, and we’ve all been background checked out the wazoo.

      Seriously, all sarcasm aside (and there was meant to be a lot there, based on NASA losing ten of thousands of employees PII recently, and losing the HSPD-12 privacy battle at the Supreme Court), NASA employees/contractors travel with their laptops overseas all the time.  My boss would be quite disappointed if I was unable to answer email even on a personal trip.  It’s not against policy, though they would like for you to take a clean loaner, especially to designated countries (and I probably would to China, but not to Germany).  But given that that’s a huge PITA and time sink, and the loaners frankly suck (years old and banged up), most people just take their laptops to most places.

      Most of the work that NASA does is not classified, and only ITAR restricted because Congress panicked at an earlier time and made everything ITAR restricted and export controlled.  Most of what NASA does with your tax dollars is meant to be published.

      I think it was Hitchcock who said, “If you and your wife go on a cruise, book a return ticket for two, no matter your intentions.”  It’s a poor spy, or spy handler who doesn’t know that.

  4. Correction: I believe the correct term of address is now Secretary of State John Kerry, not “Sen.”

  5. I met him in a cell in New Orleans I was

    down and out

    He looked to me to be the eyes of age

    as he spoke right out

    He talked of life, talked of life, he laughed

    clicked his heels and stepped

    He said his name “Bo Jiangles” and he danced a lick

    across the cell 

  6. Just because he wasn’t terribly slick doesn’t mean he wasn’t a spy.  There’s a long and illustrious record of really terrible ones.

    I don’t see a problem with stopping a foreign national who has taken a NASA laptop abroad in the past, asking what electronic gear he’s got on himself after he buys a one way ticket abroad, and then arresting him after finding that there’s an additional laptop he didn’t mention.

    It might turn out to be an innocent mistake, but it’s worth investigating.

    1. I think the strongest argument that this is rubbish is that we are hearing about it at all. If they thought this guy was a spy, he would be in a secret FBI facility getting the full Bradley Manning experience right now, with trained interrogators milking him for every detail on his computer passwords, contacts, handlers, whether he can be turned to being a double agent, whether they can obtained a signed and recorded confession to embarrass and expose alleged Chinese espionage once and for all.

      Multiple US government departments would be sitting on this, and there’d be a wall of secrecy on this guy five miles thick. That we’re hearing rumours about him forgetting to report 2 laptops instead of 1 (very easily seen in airport xrays) suggests to be that they’ve got zilch, and it’s just a matter of milking the appearance of an incident for party political advantage.

      Bold prediction: there will turn out to be insufficient evidence or he’ll be exonerated, but he’ll get fired anyway, but by then the news cycle will have moved on and no one will care about following up. You’ll see him referred to again a few years hence in the blogosphere and congress as a proven example of a spy, and so an urban legend is born.

      1.  This.  Real spies that are caught disappear into dark rooms for interrogation and nobody is ever the wiser.  If it is in the light it is for some other reason.

        The fact we know about this guys suggests he is just a schlub.  A poor, doomed totally fucked schlub, since once you have been labelled there is no turning back. 

        Just because his name is Buttle and not Tuttle…

      2. Whisking someone off to a dark hole in the ground really only makes sense if they know something.  There is a difference between a spy and an informant.  A spy knows spy craft, has a covert identity, and is trained to be by a spy by a spy agency.  An informant is just a dupe who got talked into making a grab at some information.  Informants are more or less worthless for anything other than international point scoring.  They are kept intentionally in the dark so that if they get nabbed there is nothing of value to tell.

        I have a feeling that this guy is an idiot, informant, or both.

        He might just be an idiot who thought bringing a NASA computer to China would be a good idea so that he could get some work done.  In that case, he gets a firm slap on the wrists, gets fired for a security breach, and the story is over.  

        He also might be an informant. He might have gotten the job naturally enough, and then through either patriotic duty, coercion, or bribes decided to sell information.  If he turns out to be an informant, the value of busting him publicly is that the US gets to wring its hands about hackers and spies.  It is tit-for-tat point scoring.

        I personally think he might be both an idiot and an informer who was trying to passing on unsolicited information.  I have a really hard time swallowing that an informant with an actual Chinese spy handler would let him jump on an airplane with a NASA laptop.  It would be a thousand times easier to just hand the laptop off, toss it in a diplomats bags, and call it a day.

        He sends some e-mail to his cousin about how he is going to totally score some cash or a job in the Chinese space program by bringing them stolen information.  The feds are reading his mail and conclude that he has no actual contact with Chinese officials.  They nab him on the way out publicly because there is nothing to gain by doing it quietly.  Better to call him a spy (even if China never asked for it) and score a few PR points than just toss him out of the country and calling it a day.

  7. Years ago I met someone from an early internet company and I asked him about Chinese espionage.  he said they had caught a couple Chinese employees spying on them.

    I asked what happened and he said “They were acquired by the US government.”

    I asked “What does “acquired” mean?”

    He said “Let’s just say that the Men In Black are real.”

  8. At my previous employer it was a requirement for any company laptop taken to China to have full disk encryption. It could be argued that taking a laptop without encryption is the same as giving the contents away, even if you had no intention of doing that.

  9. For those of you too young to remember the Cold War, SOP before going into discussions about freeing one of your spies who had been arrested by the enemy was to counter-arrest someone who was of value to them and accuse that person of being a spy. Another related tactic was to arrest an asset just before going into negotiations and use them as an additional bargaining chip.

    With Kerry going to China soon, and with “cyber-espionage” on his docket of things to discuss, I’d guess that this might be a case of the latter.

  10. Where NASA was employing a Chinese national, then they have invited China to send an agent to work with them.  Turning around and accusing an agent of doing his job is entrapment.

    Those who should be arrested are those who hired a Chinese national and granted access to sensitive data and/or equipment, as well as they who set up the trap to accuse him of impropriety.

    They must prove that there was no communication issue when he was arrested for admitting he has various electronica media like all people do.

    I suggest American spies in China should beware of fair responses from their host.

  11. “a flight from Dulles airport (in DC)”

    Just to be pedantic, Dulles is in Virginia, about 30 miles outside D.C. But yes, in the D.C. area.

    1. That’s so last century. They can do whatever they want. Just make up a new category of doesn’t-get-a-trial and they’re done.

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