Xi Xiaoxing, the chairman of Temple University’s physics department – David Maialetti/Philly.com
When the Justice Department arrested the chairman of Temple University’s physics department this spring and accused him of sharing sensitive American-made technology with China, prosecutors had what seemed like a damning piece of evidence: schematics of sophisticated laboratory equipment sent by the professor, Xi Xiaoxing, to scientists in China.
The schematics, prosecutors said, revealed the design of a device known as a pocket heater. The equipment is used in superconductor research, and Dr. Xi had signed an agreement promising to keep its design a secret.
But months later, long after federal agents had led Dr. Xi away in handcuffs, independent experts discovered something wrong with the evidence at the heart of the Justice Department’s case: The blueprints were not for a pocket heater.
Faced with sworn statements from leading scientists, including an inventor of the pocket heater, the Justice Department on Friday afternoon dropped all charges against Dr. Xi, an American citizen.
It was an embarrassing acknowledgment that prosecutors and F.B.I. agents did not understand — and did not do enough to learn — the science at the heart of the case before bringing charges that jeopardized Dr. Xi’s career and left the impression that he was spying for China…
…Dr. Xi’s case, coming on the heels of a similar case that was dismissed a few months ago in Ohio, raises questions about whether the Justice Department, in its rush to find Chinese spies, is ensnaring innocent American citizens of Chinese ancestry…
The science involved in Dr. Xi’s case is, by any measure, complicated…Dr. Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said that despite the complexity, it appeared that the government never consulted with experts before taking the case to a grand jury…
And the grand jury did what grand juries always think they’re required to do. They handed over an indictment.
Mr. Zeidenberg, a lawyer for the firm Arent Fox, represented both Dr. Xi and Sherry Chen, a government hydrologist who was charged and later cleared in the Ohio case. A longtime federal prosecutor, Mr. Zeidenberg said he understood that agents felt intense pressure to crack down on Chinese espionage, but the authorities in these cases appeared to have been too quick to assume that their suspicions were justified.
In Dr. Xi’s case, Mr. Zeidenberg said, the authorities saw emails to scientists in China and assumed the worst. But he said the emails represented the kind of international academic collaboration that governments and universities encourage. The technology discussed was not sensitive or restricted, he said.
“If he was Canadian-American or French-American, or he was from the U.K., would this have ever even got on the government’s radar? I don’t think so,” Mr. Zeidenberg said…
About a dozen F.B.I. agents, some with guns drawn, stormed Dr. Xi’s home in the Philadelphia suburbs in May, searching his house just after dawn, he said. His two daughters and his wife watched the agents take him away in handcuffs on fraud charges…
Temple University put him on administrative leave and took away his title as chairman of the physics department. He was given strict rules about who at the school he could talk to. He said that made it impossible for him to continue working on a long-running research project that was nearing completion.
Last month, Mr. Zeidenberg delivered a presentation for prosecutors and explained the science. He gave them sworn statements from the experts and implored the Justice Department to consult with a physicist before taking the case any further. Late Friday afternoon, the Justice Department dropped the case “in the interests of justice.”
Nice of the DOJ finally to get round to consideration of justice – instead of continuing to act like obedient little blue minions on the payroll of a government committed to unrelenting Cold War ideology. Our political leaders – the two flavors we’re allowed – are dedicated to the imperial ideal we took over from a poverty-stricken British Empire after World War 2. That this ideology leads the United States further down the path of economic and social corruption is of no concern. That lives and careers may be crushed by bureaucrats is of no concern.
The bigotry and racism that is a central characteristic of American culture is no less strong in our system of justice than daily life. If Professor Xi tried too hard to stand up for his rights, his innocence, he could have died at the stroke of a moment’s decision made by FBI agents with guns drawn.