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US scientist recruited by China pleads guilty to lying to government

FBI agents. (Melanie Rodgers Cox/US Air Force)

A former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist accused of lying about his contact with a Chinese recruitment program pleaded guilty last Friday to one count of making a false statement to the U.S. government.

Turab Lookman of Santa Fe accepted the plea as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors that includes dismissal of two other charges.

Lookman will be sentenced at a later date, probably within 60 to 90 days, federal prosecutor George C. Kraehe said.

He could face up to five years in federal prison and be fined as much as $250,000.

Lookman, who was 67 when he was arrested, admitted to lying to a LANL investigator in 2018 about his contact with a program that prosecutors said had been “established by the Chinese government to recruit people with access to and knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property.”

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U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Paul Briones told Lookman that the 10-month sentence the defendant had discussed with attorneys was “on the low end” and would not be binding to the U.S. District Court judge who will decide whether to accept the terms of the plea deal.

The FBI arrested Lookman after he was indicted in May 2019 on three counts of making false statements about being recruited by and applying to participate in China’s Thousand Talents Program for personal compensation.

“The laboratory proactively recognized this issue and since then has worked cooperatively with federal law enforcement and will continue to assist as appropriate during the sentencing phase,” lab spokesman Kevin Roark said in a statement Friday.

Lookman joined LANL in 1999 and was named a laboratory fellow in 2017, one of the laboratory’s highest scientific honors. He has authored two books and more than 250 academic articles.

His indictment came as tensions escalated between the U.S. and China over intellectual property disputes and a mounting trade war. U.S. officials have accused China of extensive intellectual property theft, including for high-tech military weaponry that raises national security concerns.

China has worked in the past decade to boost its status as a superpower, creating several recruitment initiatives such as the Thousand Talents Program to lure top-level scientists in high-tech fields, partly by offering large research grants. The White House has called Thousand Talents a threat to the U.S.

The Thousand Talents Program is cited as one of China’s most successful efforts at appropriating rival countries’ high-tech research. China’s applications for new patents have grown almost fivefold to 1.5 million since the program was founded in 2008, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

At a hearing last year, federal prosecutors characterized Lookman as a serious national security threat because his high-level security clearance gave him access to critical facilities and some of the nation’s most guarded nuclear secrets.

The nuclear weapons information Lookman was privy to is “the kind of gun he could point at a whole city, a whole country,” Kraehe said at that hearing. “And the United States tries to keep that kind of gun very safe and secure, and that’s why it entrusts possession of that gun to only the very most reliable people there are, people who always tell the truth.”

Lookman also had a number of bank accounts and possible citizenship in several countries, which prosecutors said was further proof that he had no loyalty to the U.S. They said he lied repeatedly about his citizenship, travel and communications with foreign nationals.

But Lookman’s lawyer, Paul Linnenburger, accused prosecutors of overstating his client’s level of access to highly classified information. There was no evidence that Lookman ever unlawfully obtained nuclear weapons secrets or planned to share them with a foreign government, Linnenburger argued at the time.

Lookman’s connections to several countries also were being made out to be more sinister than they were, Linnenburger said.

He moved with his family from India to the U.K. when he was 13 and went on to earn a doctorate in theoretical physics from King’s College at the University of London. He then spent about 20 years as a professor at a Canadian university before joining LANL.

Although he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, he maintained a British passport.

Some of Lookman’s former colleagues have said he was a political pawn ensnared in the Trump administration’s crackdown on scientists with any ties to China’s recruitment programs.

His contact with China came partly through the lab’s collaboration with that country on research projects, such as one aimed at discovering new materials that could support nuclear deterrence and the lab’s energy work.

But the Department of Energy scrapped such partnerships between the lab and China after concerns grew about intellectual property theft.

The Energy Department thanked its fellow federal agencies for identifying the threat that Lookman posed and bringing it to “a swift resolution.”

“Protecting technology and intellectual property at our laboratories, plants, and sites is a top priority,” an agency spokeswoman said in a statement.

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© 2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican