NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A federal judge said Thursday that a former contractor at NASA’s Langley Research Center can be released from jail while he awaits trial, despite prosecutors’ arguments that the Chinese citizen is a serious flight risk.
Bo Jiang pleaded not guilty to lying to federal authorities about what electronics he was carrying with him on a one-way flight to Beijing when he was questioned at Dulles International Airport earlier this month. He was under investigation for possible violations of the Arms Export Control Act at the time of the search, although he does not face any charges related to that. His jury trial is scheduled for May 29.
Court documents say Jiang failed to disclose a laptop, hard drives and other equipment.
Jiang, 31, earned worked as a researcher for the Hampton, Va.-based National Institute of Aerospace for about two years until January. He was able to come and go from the NASA facility without an escort, which could have allowed him access to sensitive information, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa McKeel.
McKeel said it could take a long time to determine if there was any sensitive information on the nine electronic devices Jiang had with him at the time he was arrested. An affidavit signed by an FBI agent notes that Jiang previously traveled to China with a NASA laptop that may have contained sensitive information.
McKeel said Jiang lost his job at the institute in January as a result of that security violation. She said Jiang was a flight risk because he was trying to leave the country on a one-way ticket and moved up his flight after he was publicly identified in media reports by a U.S. congressman.
However, Jiang defense attorney Fernando Groene said there’s no evidence that there was any classified information on the computer Jiang took with him to China on vacation. He also noted Jiang voluntarily cooperated with authorities at the airport and allowed them to search his Norfolk home.
Groene has suggested that Jiang is only in jail and under investigation because U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has inferred that Jiang may be a spy. Wolf has targeted Jiang in news conferences and congressional hearings about NASA security, saying the space agency is using contractors to get around rules prohibiting citizens of certain countries from working for NASA.
The investigation into Jiang has led NASA to review access that NASA facilities grant to foreign citizens from China and other countries.
Unsecured, but monitored
Groene said if Jiang were hiding anything, he wouldn’t have allowed authorities to search his home. He said Jiang was leaving the country because he had lost his job and his visa was about to expire, and he had been unsuccessful finding another job despite submitting about 100 applications.
He said authorities knew where in Virginia Jiang lived and that they knew his flight to Dulles was leaving out of Norfolk International Airport, but they waited to until he got onto the jetway to board his plane to stop him because they didn’t have probable cause to arrest him for anything else.
Jiang will be released on a $10,000 unsecured bond, will be under GPS monitoring and be forced to surrender his passport, although prosecutors may appeal.
If convicted, Jiang faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, although he would likely serve a maximum of six months under federal sentencing guidelines.