RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a Tennessee courtroom today, a high-stakes bail hearing will take place. It's a case involving China and alleged nuclear espionage. Allen Ho has been jailed since April. He's charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act. His case is one of a number involving scientists who the U.S. government suspects may also be spies. The scientists in question are all U.S. citizens, though they were all born in mainland China or Taiwan.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is with us here now. Good morning.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And what exactly is Allen Ho charged with?
KELLY: So Ho is a nuclear engineer and consultant. And the charges against him, in essence, are that he helped China's biggest nuclear power company to develop sensitive nuclear technology. He's also charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, in this case China. And the allegation is that in doing these things, he put U.S. national security at risk.
These are serious charges, Renee. They carry a maximum of a possible life sentence.
MONTAGNE: And Allen Ho, he's denied these charges?
KELLY: He does. Again, he's been in jail, so I wasn't able to speak to him. But I did interview his attorney, a man named Peter Zeidenberg, who has defended a number of these Asian-American scientists, many of whose cases have eventually been dismissed. And so Zeidenberg would not comment on the details of Ho's case, but he would say across the cases he's been involved with, he sees a pattern of people targeted because of their ties to China.
Here's what he said.
PETER ZEIDENBERG: If their ties were to France or their ties were to Italy or to Scandinavia, their conduct would never come under the radar of the department. It's a bright red flag.
KELLY: You heard him talking there under the radar of the department, and what he means is, of course, the Justice Department, which is prosecuting these cases. And that's worth noting. Zeidenberg, who's now with a big D.C. law firm Arent Fox, but he was a longtime federal prosecutor. And he told me he thinks his former colleagues are overreaching.
ZEIDENBERG: They have been way too quick to pull the trigger on these cases and others. And they see conspiracies and patterns and malevolent conduct when there isn't any.
MONTAGNE: Talk to us, Mary Louise, about some of these cases involving scientists accused of spying. Several have made the news in the last few months.
KELLY: There certainly have. There's the case people may remember of Sherry Chen, a Chinese-American. She was accused of illegally accessing federal dam databases. She was cleared of all charges, but she lost her job with the National Weather Service. She's still fighting to get it back. Another case that I want to bring to your attention, this is the case of Xiaoxing Xi.
Professor Xi has quite a story. He is Chinese-American, again. He is a U.S. citizen, again. He's a physics professor at Temple University. And last year, one morning in May, he was at his home, which is in Philadelphia. And he told me he heard a knock at the door.
XIAOXING XI: So I run to the door to open it and saw a lot of people outside of the house. And some were armed and some had the battering ram ready to take down the door.
KELLY: A battering ram ready to take down your door.
XI: Yeah, and so an FBI agent showed his badge and asked me are you Xiaoxing Xi? I said, yes. And then he announced that I was arrested. And another agent just put the handcuffs on me.
KELLY: What did they say you were being arrested for?
XI: I asked them, but they wouldn't tell me. They said, we'll tell you after you answer some questions at the headquarters.
KELLY: And, Renee, Professor Xi says his wife and daughters were home, one of whom was just 12 at the time. They were marched out of their bedrooms at gunpoint. And Professor Xi was taken in for questions, as you heard there. He was fingerprinted, had his mug shot taken.
MONTAGNE: And in the end, what was Professor Xi charged with?
KELLY: Well, what he was formally charged with was wire fraud. When you read through the indictment, what becomes clear is that the FBI became convinced he was passing high tech secrets, secrets with a military application, to China. Now, Professor Xi denies that. And four months later, all charges were dropped. But I asked him about it point blank. Here's our exchange.
Were you spying for China?
XI: No, no, never. Of course, I collaborate with people in China. But that's what the government and the universities encourage us to do.
KELLY: You understand, I assume, that economic espionage by China is a big national security threat and that the FBI's job is to counter it.
XI: Absolutely. I wish they catch more people who are actually doing the spying. These kind of cases literally terrorize the Asian-American community and scientific community.
MONTAGNE: And, Mary Louise, those are strong words. Those are pretty tough accusations.
KELLY: They are.
MONTAGNE: What is the backdrop? Why are we seeing a rise in cases like the ones you've been telling us about?
KELLY: Well, I think the backdrop is that economic espionage by China does cost the U.S. economy billions every year. There's no question, no dispute that China is interested in acquiring intellectual property, classified data that belongs to the U.S. government and to American companies. And we should note, there have been many successful prosecutions.
The FBI in order to raise awareness about this whole problem actually launched a big campaign last summer. Part of it was a movie that they made. Let me let you listen to this one part of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Special Agent Carpenter (ph).
KELLY: So that's a dramatization, but it's based on a true story. And it's about a Chinese company that was trying to steal trade secrets from a U.S. competitor.
MONTAGNE: Now, the FBI and the Justice Department, how do they respond to concerns that in their zeal to uncover Chinese spies, Chinese-Americans are being unfairly targeted?
KELLY: They say absolutely not the case. The FBI declined our request for an interview. But they did give us a statement. Let me read part of that to you now. It says (reading) while we cannot comment on specific cases, the FBI follows the facts wherever they lead. It goes on, quote, "we investigate individuals based on known or suspected criminal activities or threats to national security. The FBI does not initiate investigations based on an individual's race, ethnicity, national origin or religion."
To circle back to where we began, this hearing that's unfolding today in a courtroom in Knoxville. And I expect, Renee, we have not seen the last of these high-profile prosecutions because the FBI and the DOJ are still trying to figure out how do you counter a legitimate national security threat without discriminating on racial grounds?
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks very much.
KELLY: You're welcome.