The Los Alamos Club: Cowardice Has Consequences

David Acevedo

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has engaged in research theft and academic espionage in American higher education for some time. Whether it be on the institutional level through Confucius Institutes or on the individual level through the Thousand Talents Plan and other “talent programs,” the last five years have made abundantly clear that China intends to steal as much intellectual property as possible, and that the U.S. intends to do little, if anything, about it.

This problem, however, seems to be much worse than we thought.

A new bombshell report by Strider Technologies, titled The Los Alamos Club: How the People’s Republic of China Recruited Leading Scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory to Advance Its Military Programs, provides crucial insight into the extent to which China has infiltrated American research—in this case, sensitive government research. The findings of this study should deeply concern all who care about research integrity and U.S. national security.

Welcome to the Club

Strider is a research and intelligence firm that helps companies “proactively identify, manage, and respond to nation-state directed IP [intellectual property] theft and supply chain vulnerabilities.” It conducts research on a wide range of intelligence-related issues, which, these days, includes a significant amount of work on China. In July, for example, Strider “identified two postdoctoral researchers in nanotechnology who, while working at Oak Ridge [National Laboratory], were recruited into China’s Youth Thousand Talents Program.” The Oak Ridge story, as concerning as it is, pales in comparison to the findings of The Los Alamos Club.

For those who need a refresher, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is a Department of Energy (DOE) lab founded in 1943 to aid in designing nuclear weapons during World War II and, later, the Cold War. After the Cold War, LANL turned from a narrow focus on nuclear weapons to a much wider scope of topics, including renewable energy, aerospace engineering, and vehicle technology.

LANL’s core mission, though, has ostensibly remained the same: 

We focus on integrating research and development solutions to achieve the maximum impact on strategic national security priorities. In addition, through our partnerships across government agencies, laboratories, universities, and industry, we deliver the best possible science and technology results for the nation [emphasis added].

How cruelly ironic it is, then, to read the findings of Strider’s report. And what is the “Los Alamos Club”? Strider explains:

The inspiration for this report comes from a March 2017 article in the South China Morning Post titled “America’s Hidden Role in Chinese Weapons Research.” The article notes that so many former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists have returned to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and are now working on military research programs that they are referred to as the “Los Alamos Club.” However, no specifics about this “Club,” its membership, or the programs these scientists are working on were reported.

Until now. Thanks to Strider’s research, we now know far more about the extent of the problem at LANL and, possibly, at other national research laboratories. Make sure you’re sitting down before you read this next part:

Between 1987 and 2021, at least 162 scientists who had worked at Los Alamos returned to the PRC to support a variety of domestic research and development (R&D) programs. Fifteen of those scientists worked as permanent staff members at Los Alamos. Of those fifteen, thirteen were recruited into PRC government talent programs; some were responsible for sponsoring visiting scholars and postdoctoral researchers from the PRC, and some received U.S. government funding for sensitive research. At least one of these staff members held a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) “Q Clearance” allowing access to Top Secret Restricted Data and National Security Information.

Of the 162 returnees, at least 59 scientists were selectees of the PRC’s flagship talent recruitment program—the Thousand Talents Program (TTP) and its youth branch, the Youth Thousand Talents Program (YTTP) [emphasis added].

Shocking and Unsurprising

These findings are simultaneously shocking and unsurprising. On the one hand, the sheer number of researchers involved in this IP theft campaign simply boggles the mind: 162 scientists over 34 years—that’s nearly five scientists per year, on average, who are conducting national security–related research at the DOE’s top laboratory and then returning to the PRC. Surely, they don’t forget everything they learned when they step across China’s borders.

To be sure, the vast majority of these scientists (147) were relatively low-level postdoctoral researchers and visiting scholars. Strider correctly points out, though, that “[a]lthough such individuals do not have access to the most sensitive research at Los Alamos, they still pose a risk of technology transfer and economic espionage. The DOE has acknowledged instances in which researchers elsewhere have passed dual-use and export-controlled research to the PRC via visiting students and scholars.”

The problem is not limited to these low-level scientists. As Strider reports, fifteen of these scientists were permanent staff members at LANL—staff that surely have greater access to sensitive research—and at least one has access to top-secret information. Even if only this one scientist had “Q Clearance,” it’s enough for us to sound the alarm and investigate just what China may have learned through this individual.

As mind-boggling as this is, though, the findings are also completely unsurprising. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has documented since 2017 the ways in which all components of America’s research infrastructure—colleges and universities, individual researchers, national laboratories, and the U.S. government—are willing to allow rampant research theft to go unchecked. Our own database of researchers charged with China-related crimes lists 50 cases and counting of this very problem.

Research For Sale

Meanwhile, the federal government has made it quite clear that it wants no part in protecting American research. For years, it has left foreign gift disclosure laws unenforced, such that when former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos decided to start enforcing existing law, she uncovered over $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed gifts. Before this, and now after Trump has left office, foreign governments such as China, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have been allowed free rein to purchase influence and intellectual property to their hearts’ desire.

But the federal government’s academic negligence came to a head when it ended the China Initiative, a Trump-era Department of Justice project that aimed to crack down on PRC influence in American higher education. The most well-known China Initiative case by far is that of Charles Lieber, a disgraced Harvard chemist who now awaits sentencing in January.

Mainstream news publications, however, focus almost exclusively on failed China Initiative cases, painting the researchers involved as innocent victims tossed to and fro by the racist whims of a cruel government. Even the Wall Street Journal, in a recent 1,500-word article, made not a single mention of a legitimate China Initiative case—only the failed cases which many claim are evidence of anti-Asian racism (I refute this absurd claim here).

American courts, too, are to blame for this degradation of national security. Just in the last week, two China Initiative cases demonstrated perfectly the lengths our judicial system is willing to go to play softball with Chinese influence.

The first case concerns Mingqing Xiao, professor of mathematics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In May, Xiao was convicted of tax fraud and failing to file a foreign bank account, crimes for which the federal government requested he be imprisoned for a year and fined tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, District Judge Staci Yandle sentenced Xiao to a year of probation and a measly $600 fine. Science reports that “Yandle said no purpose would be served by incarcerating Xiao and that he posed no threat of reoffending.” Call me crazy, but it seems that a slap on the wrist and a few hundred bucks lost would only encourage someone to reoffend.

The second case is that of Feng “Franklin” Tao, professor of chemistry at the University of Kansas. In April, Tao was convicted on three counts of wire fraud and on one count of making a false statement. Earlier this week, however, District Judge Julie Robinson threw out the three wire fraud convictions, writing that “[t]hough Tao was deceptive in not disclosing his activities at [Fuzhou University], there was no evidence that Tao obtained money or property through the alleged scheme to defraud, as required under the wire fraud statute.” It’s curious that a jury—operating on a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard—would convict a man for three counts of a crime for which there was “no evidence.”

Cowardice Has Consequences

I could list many more cases, but I think you get the point. Both the executive and the judicial branches have turned a blind eye to the PRC’s intellectual property theft in American higher education and government research. The legislative branch has not fared much better. Meanwhile, the colleges, universities, and national laboratories themselves have also failed to establish and enforce robust foreign disclosure requirements. 

All of these bodies know that the problem exists—they are not guilty of ignorance, but of cowardice, trembling before the spurious claim of racism at the expense of American national security. As Strider’s report has now driven home, this cowardice has consequences.

The message to China is clear: Please, come on in and make yourself at home. Steal whatever research you wish. We’ll rarely enforce the law, and even when we do, those convicted will get light sentences. And we’ll call anyone who criticizes our actions a racist. Sound like a plan?

All branches of government, as well as our institutions of higher education and national laboratories, must right their wrongs and protect American research from foreign influence and theft. If they don’t, America’s days as the global leader in research and innovation may soon come to a close.

Image: Adobe Stock

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