NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A Virginia congressman is calling for stricter security protocols for foreign scientists working at NASA after claims of security breaches at the agency's facilities in Hampton and the Silicon Valley.
What a serious crackdown could mean for U.S. scientists working with colleagues from other countries in rocket science, space exploration or less sensitive fields is unclear, local experts say. But they agree there's a need to keep sensitive scientific advances out of the wrong hands.
"While there is great benefit from international collaboration, there is also a need to protect scientific and technological advances that place the United States in a favorable position in the global economy, as well as to protect advances that help assure the safety of U.S. citizens and property," said Rob Wyman, spokesman at NASA Langley Research Center.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf claimed a Chinese national working as a contractor at the Hampton facility had inappropriate access to restricted information and took research with him on a visit to China.
NASA has said the contractor no longer works there, and the matter was turned over to law enforcement.
"NASA takes security very seriously and follows long-established procedures to investigate any allegations quickly and thoroughly," Wyman said.
The agency spends $200 million annually on security and requires security training for all employees, he said.
Wolf wants NASA to spend even more. He's also calling for NASA to audit security protocols for foreign access, review all foreign nationals with current agency credentials and halt all new credentialing of foreign nationals of designated "countries of concern" until stronger background checks are in place.
Wolf is chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee, which funds NASA.
At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point, some research has commercial or even military applications, but none is proprietary or subject to federal restrictions, said spokesman David Malmquist.
"Until the outcome of any investigation is known, it's not possible for us to gauge how restrictive any new policies or laws might become," Malmquist said.
"We think this will be a non-issue for VIMS," he added, "unless universities face significant new prohibitions on hiring Chinese scientists or accepting Chinese graduate students."
China is of particular interest to Wolf, concerned over the growing number of high-tech thieves and cyber criminals stealing and dealing in U.S. trade secrets and technology. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, of 19 convictions for economic espionage and theft of trade secrets since 2009, 16 involved China.
At Jefferson National Laboratory in Newport News, which operates an underground particle accelerator, nearly all research is fundamental open science. Fundamental science isn't subject to federal export regulations, which typically protect technologies with military potential, said Robert McKeown, deputy director for science. One restricted technology is the lab's free electron laser.
Before a foreign scientist can work at Jefferson, McKeown said, the lab must first issue an invitation, enabling the scientist to obtain a visa. And all new employees — even U.S. citizens — must be reported to Homeland Security. The same applies to all government contractors.
"As long as all of these institutions follow these procedures, there should not be a problem," McKeown said. "Responsibility rests with the federal government to ensure that employees are qualified to work."
But one growing concern is cyber security. Nearly two years ago, McKeown said, the lab came under a cyber attack that was quickly discovered and fended off. He said he couldn't say where the attack originated.
Enhancing security is an ongoing process, he said, and recently the lab invited a team from the Department of Energy to attempt to penetrate its cyber defenses and "do their best to find flaws in our system."
"We believe that we've made progress in making our computer network system more secure," McKeown said. "And, in fact, that was verified by this recent team."
Some security threats can originate right next door.
Quan-Sheng Shu was a renowned cryogenics expert who emigrated from China in 1983 and founded a small research company in Texas. Eventually he because a U.S. citizen.
In the late 1990s, he relocated his company, AMAC International, to Newport News, telling the Daily Press at the time he was lured by the reputation of Jefferson Lab — which uses cryogenics to supercool its accelerator — and state financial incentives. AMAC was based in a facility adjacent to the lab.
According to news reports, within a few years Shu had accrued millions of dollars in contracts with the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, and millions more in federal grants from NASA to the Department of Energy. He had engaged in three collaborative research projects at Jefferson Lab.
Eventually, Shu began to shift his company from research and development to marketing American high-tech products in China and Europe.
In 2008, he was arrested and charged with illegally turning over rocket technology to the Chinese government and bribing key Chinese officials. An investigation showed he'd been helping Chinese officials since 2003 to illegally acquire new technologies used in the design and development of the Hainan space launch facility, a violation of the federal Arms Export Control Act.
Shu, then 68, pleaded guilty, and in 2009 was sentenced to more than four years in federal prison.