Former US National Lab Scientist Sentenced for Lying About Participating in Chinese Job Program

September 16, 2020 Updated: September 16, 2020

A former physicist and materials scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was sentenced to probation and fined for lying about his participation in a Chinese state-sponsored recruitment program.

Turab Lookman, 68, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, had denied he was recruited by the Chinese Thousand Talents program when, in fact, he was, according to a statement from the Department of Justice (DOJ).

He was sentenced on Sept. 11 to five years of probation and a $75,000 fine for making a false statement to the U.S. Department of Energy, which operates the lab. He had faced a maximum sentence of five years of imprisonment and a fine of $250,000, the DOJ said in an initial announcement that followed his guilty plea.

Under the terms of his probation, he isn’t allowed to leave New Mexico, according to the DOJ.

“Lookman not only lied, but he betrayed his country by collaborating with the Communist Party of China to undermine our nation’s national security,” prosecutors said in a court filing.

He pleaded guilty in January, admitting that he lied to a counterintelligence officer who asked whether he had been recruited by or applied for a job with the Thousand Talents Plan on June 6, 2018.

Beijing rolled out the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008 to aggressively recruit promising science and tech researchers from foreign countries to work in China.

On July 7, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned about China’s motives behind programs such as the Thousand Talents Plan during a speech at the Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute.

“Through its talent recruitment programs, like the so-called Thousand Talents Program, the Chinese government tries to entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China—even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating our export controls and conflict-of-interest rules,” Wray said.

Federal prosecutors in recent months have charged a string of researchers who were Thousand Talents participants and failed to disclose those ties to their employers. Others have been prosecuted for stealing intellectual property.

Lookman, who has a doctorate in theoretical physics from King’s College at the University of London, joined LANL in 1999; he was fired shortly after the FBI arrested him in May last year. According to LANL, he has authored more than 250 publications and earned multiple awards for his research, including the laboratory’s Fellows Prize for Outstanding Research.

LANL is best known for being one of the sites for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, which designed and developed nuclear weapons amid World War II. The lab is now tasked with science programs that focus on areas such as energy, biotechnology, and advanced scientific computing.

It’s unclear when Lookman signed on to the Thousand Talents Plan; the program offered him $75,000 in remuneration, according to court documents, citing his contract with the program.

Additionally, it was Xue Dezhen, currently a professor at China’s Xi’an Jiaotong University (XJTU), who convinced Lookman to sign up for the talent program at a Chinese research center, according to court documents. XJTU is located in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province.

Xue was a visiting student at LANL from March 2012 to September 2012, when he was earning his doctorate degree at XJTU, according to his personal webpage on XJTU’s website. From November 2013 to October 2015, he was a LANL director’s postdoctoral fellow.

Lookman and Xue were co-authors for at least 20 scientific papers, according to a list of Xue’s publications on the XJTU website.

In 2017, Xue was selected by Shaanxi provincial authorities for its “outstanding youth talent” program. While it is unclear what benefits the program offers to individuals, the application for the program stated that applicants must “support the principles and policies of the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Xue is currently a professor at the State Key Laboratory for Mechanical Behavior of Materials at XJTU. Researchers and professors at this XJTU laboratory have often received grant funds from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, according to NSFC’s website.

The foundation, established by China’s cabinet-like State Council in 1986, states on its website that it follows decisions made by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In March, the State Key Laboratory published a recruitment ad seeking to hire people from China and overseas to be the lab’s directors. One of the qualifications listed was: “following the Party’s education policies.” 

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