FBI probe of defense tech allegedly leaked from NASA stonewalled, sources say
Shown here is an aerial shot of the Ames Research Center. (NASA.gov)
A four-year FBI investigation into the transfer of classified weapons technology to China and other countries from NASA’s Ames Research Center is being stonewalled by government officials, sources tell FoxNews.com.
Documents obtained by FoxNews.com, which summarize these and other allegations and were given to congressional sources last week by a whistle-blower, described how a “secret grand jury” was to be convened in February 2011 to hear testimony from informants in the case, including a senior NASA engineer. But federal prosecutor Gary Fry was removed from the case, which was then transferred from one office in the Northern District of California to another where, according to the documents, “this case now appears to be stalled.”
“The information is staggering,” the whistle-blower told FoxNews.com.
A Justice Department spokesman on Thursday told FoxNews.com it “does not comment on grand jury proceedings,” as a matter of longstanding policy. Fry, reached for comment late Thursday, also would not confirm or deny the claim.
The claims originate with several past and current NASA employees concerned with the systemic leak of highly sensitive information relating to missile defense systems, as well as what they call a troubled investigation into the leak.
The documents claim the FBI has been working with other agencies since 2009 on an investigation into foreign nationals working at Ames. This follows allegations by two Republican lawmakers earlier this month that the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern California district was ultimately denied by the Justice Department when it tried to proceed with indictments.
Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, denied claims her office was blocked in trying to proceed with the case.
“I am aware of allegations our office sought authority from DOJ in Washington, D.C. to bring charges in a particular matter and that our request was denied,” she said in a written statement. “Those allegations are untrue. No such request was made and no such denial was received.”
Yet two members of Congress, Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement to FoxNews.com that Haag’s denial “conflicts with information we have received from federal law enforcement sources,” and added “we hope that the DOJ Inspector General will take our request seriously.” The lawmakers had requested, via letter, an IG investigation.
Rob Storch, a spokesman for the DOJ inspector general’s office, confirmed to FoxNews.com the office received the letter from Wolf and Smith. “We’re evaluating (the letter),” he said.
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Ames Research Center has been a center of high tech innovation for more than 60 years. As the space agency’s mission has changed over the years since it was built, NASA has turned it into a commercial research facility, leasing out space to a number of companies including rocket firm SpaceX and tech giant Google, which leases 42 acres there through a holding company called Planetary Ventures.
The accusations stem from a reported violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), which governs the export of defense weaponry. In 2006, Ames adapted specialized rocket engines -- originally developed for the Pentagon missile defense “Kinetic Kill Vehicle” program -- for a moon lander prototype that ultimately became NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). The robotic moon orbiter is set to launch on Aug. 12, 2013.
Information on guidance and terrain-mapping systems from the Tomahawk cruise missile and a radar from the F-35 were also shared, according to one report in Aviation Week.
"When I mentioned the tech that was compromised to the Armed Services Committee, their jaws just dropped," a congressional source told FoxNews.com.
The sources allege that Ames Center Director Simon P. “Pete” Worden and Will Marshall, a British citizen, shared that moon lander project - and the missile defense technology – with individuals from foreign countries including China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
“Will Marshall in particular had demonstrated far too great an interest in locating U.S. spy satellites, giving interviews to Chinese and American newspapers on curtailing U.S. space security,” reads a document that was purportedly given to the FBI. Marshall could not be reached for comment by FoxNews.com.
The document claims foreign nationals, under the direction of Worden, were since 2006 brought in to work on space flight projects, without the proper export control licenses. Further, the document claims they were planning to share technology with the Chinese and other countries through the International Space University.
The document also charges the Department of Homeland Security “intercepted” Marshall at the San Francisco airport, and “confiscated” his NASA-issued computer, suggesting it contained sensitive information.
“Foreign nationals had access to technology and even brought foreign visitors in to see it. Three left the country and talked about the technology,” congressional sources told FoxNews.com. “The case was referred to the U.S. attorney – it’s a clear violation of ITAR.”
A NASA engineer was subpoenaed to testify before a secret grand jury in February 2011 in San Jose, according to the documents. But the attorney assigned to the case – Gary Fry -- was removed at the last minute, before the case was transferred to another office within Haag’s district. Fry still works out of the San Jose office.
NASA headquarters deferred questions to the Department of Justice. The Justice Department headquarters also declined to comment to FoxNews.com.
But Worden told FoxNews.com the accusations are “rubbish.”
“I take very seriously our responsibility to safeguard sensitive information. I say this unambiguously — I have not, would not, and could not impede a law enforcement investigation. To the best of my knowledge I am not the subject of a current investigation,” he said in a statement.
On Feb. 8, Reps. Wolf and Smith sent letters to the Justice Department inspector general and the director of the FBI regarding the allegedly illegal movement of this crucial technology. Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee. Smith heads the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
The letters allege the FBI had uncovered the ITAR violations, and the U.S. attorney was prepared to issue indictments. But it says the case has been stalled for more than a year, agents in the case were reassigned, and the statute of limitations on the violations is already beginning to expire.
“It is our understanding that this illegal technology transfer may have involved classified Defense Department weapons system technology to foreign countries, including China, potentially with the tacit or direct approval of the center’s leadership,” the letters read.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also wrote to NASA as early as April 2012 asking about allegations that Worden “allowed foreign nationals” to access Ames – along with “NASA secrets and cutting edge technology” in violation of ITAR.
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NASA Ames Catches Heat Over Alleged Tech Leaks To China
Two prominent Congressmen contend that classified weapons know-how may have been illegally transferred to other countries, including China, by unspecified individuals at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, and that government probes of those allegations have been hamstrung by various delays.
The complaints are being raised by Frank Wolf of Virginia, chairman of the House Appropriations panel’s subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, and also by Lamar Smith of Texas, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. They raise their concerns in a letter dated Feb. 8 to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general. The letter’s contents were first reported by Aviation Week.
In their letter, Reps. Wolf and Smith assert that the FBI, NASA’s office of the inspector general and other law-enforcement agencies since 2009 have been looking into the alleged transfer of technology controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. They said such technology transfer “may have involved classified Defense Department weapons system technology to foreign countries, including China, potentially with the tacit or direct approval of the center’s leadership.”
NASA declined comment to Aviation Week, saying “it would be inappropriate for us to discuss any possible investigation.”