By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008
A federal jury in Knoxville, Tenn., convicted a retired university professor on conspiracy, wire fraud and export control charges yesterday for improperly sharing sensitive technology with students from China and Iran.
Plasma physicist J. Reece Roth, 70, faces more than a decade in prison when he is sentenced early next year. Prosecutors say the professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee exchanged restricted military data with foreign research assistants and traveled overseas with electronic versions of sensitive materials on his laptop computer.
The case is the latest in a series involving the Arms Export Control Act. It also is among the first in which the government sought to punish a defendant for distributing scientific know-how rather than equipment to foreigners studying at universities with military research contracts.
Roth worked with a Knoxville technology company on a pair of U.S. Air Force contracts to develop plasma-based guidance systems for the wings of unmanned vehicles from 2004 to 2006, according to court papers. The drones are used in surveillance and to house weapons. This year, the company, Atmospheric Glow Technologies, and another scientist there pleaded guilty to related charges.
In recent years, law enforcement authorities and intelligence experts have warned that military secrets could be compromised in university settings and other seemingly benign environments. They point to heightened interest from China and the Middle East.
"The illegal export of such sensitive data represents a very real threat to our national security, particularly when we know that foreign governments are actively seeking this information for their military development," said J. Patrick Rowan, acting assistant attorney general for national security.
Thomas Dundon, an attorney for Roth, did not return calls yesterday afternoon. Roth testified in the course of the seven-day trial that he had not intended to break the law.