Updates on APA Engagement of Dr. Xiaoxing Xi and Sherry Chen Cases
Advocates Call on DOJ for Independent Investigation of Cases Involving Chinese American Scientists
August 6, 2016
OCA Files Comment Letter with the Department of Homeland Security: Xi's Case Closed; Chen Loses Job
April 3, 2016
OCA-Asian American Advocates (OCA) submitted a comment letter on March 28, 2016 with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that raised concerns on a proposed rule exempting DHS from the Privacy Act of 1974. An OCA-DC chapter member alerted the OCA National Office to the rulemaking and advised on a position.
The federal agency established an “insider threat program,” which pools information related to people and activities that have any connection - no matter how remote - to the unauthorized disclosure of classified national security information. Besides current and former employees, IT personnel, and people who have or try to access classified information, DHS also creates files on people with family or other personal connection to a person for whom records are created for an insider threat investigation. DHS can create a record on any person for such reasons as a third party files a complaint against that person or investigators seeks out that person as a witness.
Under the proposal, DHS exempts itself from Privacy Act’s protections that require people to be notified when a file has been created on them, to access the file, or to correct errors. The Privacy Act covers U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but DHS also extends it to visitors.
OCA took interest in the proposed rule because of recent cases involving Dr. Xiaoxing Xi and Sherry Chen. Dr. Xi, a professor at Temple University’s physics department, was mistakenly accused last May of submitting a proprietary design to contacts in China. By September, the U.S. government had withdrawn the espionage charges. However, it reserved the right to keep Dr. Xi under investigation and refile charges. Then, on March 21, 2016, the U.S. government said it did not plan to consider the charges in the future, and closed the case. Now, Dr. Xi faces over $220,000 in legal costs.
Sherry Chen is a hydrologist whom the U.S. government arrested in October 2014 on charges of illegally accessing the National Inventory of Dams (NID), a federal database, without an authorized password or consent to a non-disclosure agreement, and lying to the FBI. Chen had responded to an information request on dams, including storage, construction and financing. While her office fielded information requests from the public, Chen was doing a personal favor for an old classmate, who was a government official working in the same field in China. After Chen had consulted with a colleague at the Army Corps of Engineers, that colleague later contacted security at the U.S. Department of Commerce, warning of transfer of information to a “foreign interest.” Evidence shows that Chen had provided the Chinese minister with publicly available government websites. Furthermore, NID is also posted on a government website where the public has full access, with few exceptions. The employees in Chen’s office did not know or follow a practice of using individually assigned passwords.
In March 2015, the U.S. government dropped the criminal charges. However, a year later, on March 10, 2016, Chen was terminated from her job. As grounds, her employer, the National Weather Service (NWS), relied primarily on the same underlying charges that had been dismissed earlier. Furthermore, the NWS also focused on Chen’s secret release of data to her former hiring boss when her current boss had asked to pre-approve such releases. Specifically, NWS cited untrustworthiness, misrepresentation, misuse of a federal government database, and lack of candor for the employment decision. Like Dr. Xi, Chen faces over $200,000 in legal fees.