A lawmaker with a keen interest in NASA has asked the FBI’s director and the US attorney for the eastern district of Virginia to investigate allegations that NASA officials hired a Chinese national to work at a federal center reportedly developing technologies that are of interest to China’s government.
During a press conference on 7 March, Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf—chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA—announced that whistleblowers had told him that the Chinese person in question was allowed to work directly on sensitive technology with implications for US security. The individual was even permitted to take his work, and other NASA research, back to China, Wolf said.
The lawmaker went on to suggest that the person was employed by a contractor at the direction of NASA officials in an effort to circumvent appropriations restrictions put in place by Congress to prevent the hiring of foreign nationals with questionable connections.
He said NASA officials spent several hundred thousand dollars to hire the individual in question. Wolf has also received information that at least several dozen other Chinese nationals, who are not citizens and many of whom do not even have green cards, are working at NASA’s Langley Research Center under a similar scheme.
To address the issue, the lawmaker has requested that the agency immediately appoint an independent, outside panel to comprehensively review security protocols and enforcement, including foreign national access and export controls, throughout the organization.
Wolf also called on the agency to immediately review all foreign nationals with current NASA credentials in order to identify and remove any with ties to organizations or foreign governments designated as counterintelligence threats. That would include all Chinese nationals with a professional tie to any institution connected to China’s government.
In addition, he urged NASA to impose an immediate moratorium on the granting of any new credentials to foreign nationals of designated countries of concern until stronger background check requirements have been imposed.
“I am prepared to approve a reprogramming from NASA to reallocate additional funding and staffing for agency security-related functions, including center security, export control and counterintelligence,” the lawmaker stated. “There is no reason that these positions at any center or headquarters should not be fully staffed and resourced. This should be a top priority.”
In response to Wolf’s allegations, NASA said it had completed a review of the situation, and the matter had been referred to appropriate law enforcement officials. “The contractor in question no longer works at Langley,” said NASA spokesman David Weaver.
Weaver clarified that contractors who hire foreign nationals to support their work for NASA must comply with all US export control rules, as well as all immigration laws and regulations. If a contracted employee who is a foreign national seeks access to a NASA facility, the agency applies its own security and export control review, he noted.
In addition, Weaver said foreign nationals from specifically designated countries, including China, undergo extra background screening and have strict conditions placed on their visits and activities at NASA.
“Chinese foreign nationals visiting NASA facilities do not violate the appropriations limits on bilateral activities with China because these individuals are not involved in bilateral activities for or on behalf of the Chinese government or Chinese-owned companies,” Weaver stated. “In most cases, they are students at US universities or employees of NASA contractors.”