Temple professor, once accused of spying for China, sues FBI

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Two years after the Justice Department labeled him an economic spy for China only to abruptly withdraw those claims without explanation or apology, Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi is suing the FBI agents who built the case against him.

In a suit filed Wednesday in federal court in Philadelphia, Xi alleges U.S. counterintelligence investigators targeted him because of his ethnicity and willfully misinterpreted evidence to suit a false narrative that he stole secrets from U.S. companies for China.

His claims are likely to restoke debate about recent high-profile prosecutions of Chinese American scientists, which some critics have likened to the racial hysteria of 50s-era Cold War red scares, and bring to a head Xi’s icy détente with agents and prosecutors in Philadelphia who have repeatedly expressed reservations about publicly absolving him.

They have never explained their decision in 2015 to drop their case against Xi before trial or discussed at length the evidence that prompted them to charge him in the first place.  

The suit is believed to be the first brought by a Chinese American scientist against federal investigators since the government paid $895,000 in 2006 to settle claims by U.S. nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was fired from his job at Los Alamos National Laboratory amid ultimately unproven government allegations that he was spying for China.

“The fact that Professor Xi was charged on faulty information is deeply, deeply troubling,” said his lawyer Jonathan Feinberg. “The reason that we brought the lawsuit was to hold those who were responsible for those false charges responsible and to get information for him and his family about what prompted this investigation in the first place.”

Xi, a naturalized U.S. citizen and world-renowned expert in the field of superconductivity whose work has potential military applications, resumed his position at Temple in September 2015, four months after federal prosecutors charged him with multiple counts of wire fraud.

But he remains plagued by concern that he is still being monitored and that his otherwise innocent actions may be misinterpreted as nefarious by colleagues, students and the government.

“We cannot get rid of the thought that the FBI is reading everyone one of our emails and listening to our phone conversations,” Xi, 59, he told the Inquirer in an interview last year. “I am determined to move on, but that’s there.”

Prosecutors had alleged that Xi sent schematics for a sophisticated piece of equipment known as a “pocket heater” to a colleague in China, despite a pledge he signed to keep its design a secret. They also accused him of offering to build a world-class laboratory in China in return for lucrative and prestigious appointments there.

But Xi’s lawyers have said that after meeting with a scientific expert hired by the defense, government officials realized they had fundamentally misunderstood the science behind their case and the device schematics they accused Xi of stealing had been readily circulated among the scientific community for years.

He first learned of the FBI’s interest in his work, according to his suit filed Wednesday, was when agents clad in bulletproof vests and armed with guns and a small battering ram burst into his Penn Valley home just after 6 a.m. on May 21, 2015.

They handcuffed him, drove him to a Philadelphia office and strip-searched him before he was even told why he had been placed under arrest, he claims.

The case against him came at a particularly bad time for Xi, who claims in his suit that he had been offered the opportunity to chair the university’s physics department just two days before his arrest. By the time he was allowed to return to campus, the position had been filled by a colleague. (University officials have disputed that plans for Xi’s chairmanship were ever concrete.)

The collapse of Xi’s prosecution four months later came on the heels of three other high-profile Justice Department missteps involving charges filed against Chinese American scientists, including a case prosecutors withdrew in 2014 against Sherry Chen, an Ohio-based hydrologist for the National Weather Service who was accused of illegally accessing a government database and lying about a meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official.

For years, the U.S. Justice Department has accused Chinese spy agencies of encouraging their nation’s businesses to steal trade secrets from American corporations and prosecutors here have wrung convictions against scientists and businessmen who attempted to pilfer everything from fighter jet schematics to the details on how to make the pigment used to whiten Oreo cookie stuffing.

But the string of blunders prompted the Congressional Asian American Pacific Caucus and the Committee of 100, a group of influential Chinese Americans founded by architect I.M. Pei and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to call on then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to reexamine the department’s approach to such investigations.

While avoiding commenting on Xi’s case and those of the other scientists specifically, Justice Department officials have accused Chinese spy agencies of aggressively encouraging their nation’s businesses to steal trade secrets from American corporations that have led to intellectual property loss worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Xi’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages on claims of malicious prosecution, due process violations and unlawful searches and seizures. It specifically names only Andrew Haugen, a Philadelphia-based FBI agent assigned to Chinese counterintelligence who was the lead agent on the investigation, as a defendant.

But Feinberg, who is representing the professor along with co-counsel David Rudovsky and Susan M. Lin, said Wednesday that he anticipates filing further claims against Justice Department officials in the future.

A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Philadelphia field office declined to comment on the suit. 

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