In October 2014, we heard an odd story about a National Weather Service employee in Ohio: the FBI announced that Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, a 59-year-old hydrologist at the Wilmington, Ohio, Weather Service office, was arrested — handcuffed and escorted out of the building — for charges that ultimately amounted to spying for China.
Except, it turns out, she wasn’t a spy.
The government’s indictment alleged that in May 2012, “Chen illegally accessed restricted areas of a protected U.S. Government computer database and downloaded sensitive files from the National Inventory of Dams,” the FBI wrote in a statement. “This database is maintained and controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with the National Dam Safety Review Board.” The statement also notes that Chen lied to investigators about her alleged illegal activities.
With the indictment, Chen — who has served as a hydrologist at the National Weather Service since 2007, developing and maintaining potentially life-saving flood forecasting models — was facing counts that were punishable by a total of 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
In a must-read story on this strange situation, the New York Times writes that when a former hydrology classmate in China had casually asked Chen about how dam repairs were funded in the U.S., she was embarrassed to say that she did not know. So she wanted to find out, at the very least for her own knowledge and professional growth.
[NY Times: Accused of spying for China, until she wasn’t]
Chen accessed the dam database — which actually is a publicly-accessible website with certain fields that only government employees can see — with an employee password that she says was given to her by a colleague. “As a government employee, Mrs. Chen would have had full access to the database,” writes the Times. “But she didn’t have a password; the government began requiring passwords in 2009, after the last time Mrs. Chen had used it.”
The critical dam infrastructure information that she had supposedly sent to high-level Chinese officials (her former classmate) were links to this publicly-accessible website, among others. She also shared with her classmate the contact information for a colleague that Chen thought might be more helpful. That same colleague then reported Chen’s activities to the Department of Commerce security staff. It all went downhill from there.
Being a falsely-accused spy took a painful toll on Chen and her family’s lives, the Times writes:
Her life went into a tailspin. She was suspended without pay from her job, and her family in China had to scramble for money to pay for her legal defense. Friends and co-workers said they were afraid to visit. Television news trucks parked outside her house, waiting to spot a foreign spy hiding in plain sight in suburban Wilmington, population 12,500.
“I could not sleep,” Mrs. Chen said in a recent interview. “I could not eat. I did nothing but cry for days.”
Then in March, the charges against Chen were dropped without explanation. A U.S. attorney spokeswoman told the Times that they were exercising their “prosecutorial discretion.”
Behind the scenes of Sherry Chen’s life-altering saga, the U.S. has been increasing its technological and trade defenses against Chinese hackers and spies over the past few years. NOAA admitted in late 2014 that Chinese hackers had tapped into its weather satellite system, which ultimately led to an outage of vital weather data. But more recently, House Republicans have introduced language into the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the U.S. from using weather data from Chinese satellites, for the fear that they could be providing false information.
“Mrs. Chen was caught in a much broader dragnet aimed at combating Chinese industrial espionage,” the Times reports. “Law enforcement investigations into trade-secret theft are now at record levels, jumping 60 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to an F.B.I. report last year.”
What remains unclear is why Chen was targeted by the FBI in the first place with what appeared to be very little evidence of espionage, the Times writes:
Peter R. Zeidenberg, a partner at Arent Fox in Washington who represented Mrs. Chen, said he believed it was telling that the government went after Mrs. Chen for using a colleague’s password, but not after the colleague who gave it to her — and to the entire office.
Mr. Adams, her former colleague, said he thought that Mrs. Chen’s Chinese background played a role. “If this had been you or me or someone of European descent who borrowed someone else’s password,” he said, “they would have said, ‘Don’t do this again.’ ” He added: “This is the gratitude the government has shown for her hard work and dedication as a federal public servant. It’s shameful.”
In the meantime, Chen has not yet returned to work, though she is being paid. She’s waiting to hear from the Commerce Department whether or not she will be allowed to return.
Despite all of this, Chen told the Times she wants her job back. “I know they treated me unfairly, but I’m proud of my service,” she said. “The forecasting model is very important. I miss my colleagues. I miss my work. It’s my life.”