The Case of the Chinese NASA Scientist and a Carry-on Bag Full of State Secrets

Why was Bo Jiang, a Chinese national and NASA researcher, arrested at the airport by the FBI? And should you be worried? Here's what we know so far.

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On Monday evening an officer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a NASA-affiliated Chinese researcher named Bo Jiang while Jiang was onboard a China-bound passenger jet that was taxiing at Dulles International Airport, in Washington, D.C. The particulars of the arrest — an airplane about to leave, a foreign citizen — gave the arrest a cinematic feel, reminiscent of the escape scene in Argo, only in reverse. Gawker called it "a total James Bond scenario." But why was Jiang arrested in the first place? And should you be worried? Here's what we know so far.


According to his still-active LinkedIn profile (a version of which was captured by the China website Sina), Jiang worked as a researcher at the National Institute of Aerospace, which describes itself as "a non-profit research and graduate education institute created to conduct leading-edge aerospace and atmospheric research, develop new technologies for the nation and help inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers." Jiang has worked at NIA since October 2011, and at the time of his arrest he was working on the NASA Aviation Safety Program. (NIA is located in Hampton, Virginia, near NASA's heavily-guarded Langley campus.) Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf has alleged that Jiang was permitted to walk around NASA facilities unsupervised.

Significantly, Jiang is a Chinese national — he obtained a college degree from the Chengdu University of Technology — which could bear on how the charges against him play out.

The Charges

The FBI arrested Jiang before he could leave for China because he appears to have provided false information to federal authorities about the contents of a bag he was carrying. From the arrest warrant (which you can view at the end of this article) comes this detail at Dulles, where he was stopped by Homeland Security agents while switching flights:

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, an external hard drive and a new computer. However, during the search, other media items were located that JIANG did not reveal. Such items found include, an additional laptop, an old hard drive and a SIM card. 

According to Congressman Wolf, however, Jiang's arrest places him in a much larger conspiracy to  shuttle NASA secrets to the Chinese government. On Monday Wolf held a press conference on Capitol Hill in which he suggested that Jiang was in possession of information that would be useful to the Chinese military:

We know that Mr. Jiang has in the past taken sensitive information back to China that he should not have been allowed to remove from Langley.  I am particularly concerned that this information may pertain to the source code for high-tech imaging technology that Jiang has been working on with NASA.  This information could have significant military applications for the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army.

Wait, So Was He Actually a Spy?

That's really difficult to say. We don't know, for example, if there was any kind of confusion in Jiang's encounter with the FBI — after all, the arrest warrant indicates that Jiang cooperated with the FBI, and willingly indicated that he was in possession of computer equipment. As for the contents of what he was carrying, that's even sketchier. At the time of his arrest, Jiang was working on aviation safety — not nuclear launch codes. It's possible that he just wanted to bring work home while he visited his friends or family in China.

Congressman Wolf, however, isn't giving Jiang the benefit of the doubt. He told Discovery News that "what they did here potentially could be a direct threat to our country. The Chinese have the most comprehensive spying program in Washington that has ever been. They make the KGB look like they were the junior varsity or freshman team."

What Now?

It's unclear what's going to happen to Jiang now. He was arraigned in Norfolk on Monday afternoon, and appears to be out of a job. A NASA official told the Washington Examiner that Jiang is no longer employed by NASA, though Jiang is still listed in an employee directory at the National Institute of Aerospace, meaning that his contract with NASA could have recently ended, too. We'll update here if the FBI (or NASA) announces any new developments.

For your perusal, here's Jiang's arrest warrant:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.