When she was called to sit on a federal jury in Tennessee earlier this month, Wendy Chandler had faith in prosecutors and the FBI.
A University of Tennessee scientist stood accused of defrauding the U.S. government in connection with research funded by NASA. Chandler knew that the subject matter was complex and the stakes were high. She realized that she would need to go to bed early every night, get plenty of sleep, and pay close attention. She knew she had to keep an open mind. But surely there would be some merit to what the FBI had found, she thought. Surely the government wouldn’t waste everyone’s time.
“I walked in assuming the government had some reason to be there, assuming that they were coming at it with honesty and integrity,” she told The Intercept in the first interview given by a juror in the case, United States v. Anming Hu. “I assumed the best for them.”
A lot was hanging on the case, which was brought under a controversial Trump-era Justice Department effort called the “China Initiative.” The FBI had spent 21 months tailing Anming Hu — a professor in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering — following him to and from work and even the grocery store in an effort to build a case against him. After an FBI agent led the university to believe that Hu had ties to the Chinese military, Hu was fired.
Now, in a Knoxville courtroom, Hu was staring down six felony charges, and conviction on just one of the most serious counts could bring a prison term of up to 20 years. Civil rights advocates were anxiously watching the trial because of a string of fraught government investigations involving Asian American and Asian scientists dating back long before President Donald Trump took office. The activists alleged that Hu had been targeted because of his Chinese ethnicity.
Chandler, who was known only as Juror 44 in the case, was aware of none of that background going into the trial. She considered herself patriotic and had thought very little about China. But after six days of hearing witnesses and arguments, she came to agree with the critics.
“It was the most ridiculous case,” she said. About the FBI, she added: “If this is who is protecting America, we’ve got problems.”
The trial ended in a hung jury last week, leading the judge to declare a mistrial. In the fallout, three members of Congress asked the Justice Department to open a probe into the FBI’s conduct. Chandler, one of four women on the all-white jury, says she was one of the holdouts.
A Canadian citizen with two Ph.D.s, Hu was an expert in a welding technique called brazing. The charges against him hinged on a provision in a 2011 defense spending bill that prevents NASA funds from being used for collaboration with “China or Chinese-owned companies.” The U.S. government charged Hu with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements in connection with a NASA grant he received through the University of Tennessee.
But court documents and courtroom testimony showed that prosecutors brought fraud charges only after nearly two years of surveilling Hu and failing to find evidence that he was involved in a more serious crime related to spying or technology transfer. Hu had been upfront about his ties to a university in Beijing and followed University of Tennessee administrators’ advice when preparing documents for the grant. The fraud charges struck Chandler as flimsy.
She came away believing that the lead FBI agent in the case had pursued the investigation out of ambition rather than an interest in justice. She also believed that when faced with questions from federal agents, the administrators who had advised Hu on his grant applications caved and hastily sacrificed their employee. “This poor man just got sold down the river by his university and everyone else,” Chandler said.
Hu’s case follows a long history of FBI surveillance of ethnic Chinese scientists in the U.S., some of it with disastrous results. In the 1960s, the bureau compiled lists of researchers with ties to China. In the 1980s, agents tailed renowned physicist Chang-Lin Tien, who later became the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1990s, an FBI and Department of Energy investigation into Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee imploded in a series of missteps.
The FBI established its Economic Espionage Unit in 2009 as part of an effort to go after researchers suspected of taking technology or U.S. know-how to China. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department brought dozens of cases, many of them on behalf of large U.S. corporations that claimed their intellectual property had been targeted. Later, the unit’s focus broadened to include university scientists. The FBI began working closely with funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health to identify researchers who might have withheld information on grant applications. In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions lumped these cases together into the China Initiative. In a speech announcing the initiative, he called technology theft and economic espionage “a grave threat to our national security.”
Justice Department officials claim that FBI agents pursuing China-related cases just follow the evidence, and prosecutors have brought charges against people of various ethnicities. But rights groups and scholars allege that the initiative is discriminatory, pointing to more severe sentences for Asian and Asian American defendants.
“There has been very clear messaging from the Justice Department to the field offices that this is a massive priority and they should take it very seriously,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University. “You combine that with calling it the China Initiative and issues with implicit bias, and you’re creating a recipe for unconscious decision-making to occur in a way that can pull you towards certain people as potential suspects.”
In February, civil rights groups, researchers, and others jointly wrote House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Chair Jamie Raskin to request a hearing on investigations of ethnic Asian scientists. Maryland state Sen. Susan C. Lee, who signed the letter, told The Intercept, “We just want some accountability, because you’re talking about people’s lives.”
Chandler’s opinion shifted over the course of the trial. A critical moment came when FBI agent Kujtim Sadiku took the stand. The agent testified that he looked into Hu after getting a tip that the scientist was involved in China’s Thousand Talents program, a grant program aimed at recruiting foreign-educated scientists to work for Chinese universities. Sadiku opened an investigation after finding a suspicious-seeming website that he ran through Google Translate, according to his testimony, which was reported by the Knoxville News Sentinel. He named the probe Operation Chelsea Dagger.
When Sadiku and another agent interviewed Hu at his office in April 2018, Hu denied being a member of the program, according to a brief filed by his defense attorney. Hu told the agent that he had ties to the Beijing University of Technology and that he was working on a NASA grant. But as far as he knew, there was nothing nefarious about his summer work in China, which was permitted by University of Tennessee policy. Hu had repeatedly disclosed it to the university, and a University of Tennessee grant administrator had assured him in an email that the NASA China restriction did not apply to faculty.
Sadiku testified that he believed Hu about the Thousand Talents program, the News Sentinel reported. But Sadiku then tried to enlist Hu to spy for the FBI, encouraging him to accept a speaking invitation in China and report back to the bureau after the event, Hu’s attorney, A. Philip Lomonaco, said at a media briefing last week. Hu declined to go. China has a broadly applied law against stealing state secrets; people who are accused of spying have been executed under the law.
Hu’s reluctance to spy for the FBI struck Chandler as entirely believable.
“If the FBI came and saw me and said, ‘Come report back after you go to China,’ I wouldn’t go,” she said.
But the bureau didn’t give up. A team of FBI agents tailed the scientist for 21 months. “They had six or seven agents or operatives following him around to work, to school, to the grocery store, going through his trash,” Lomonaco said at the media briefing. Hu never realized that the agents were on his trail, the lawyer added.
Sadiku also testified that he showed University of Tennessee administrators a PowerPoint detailing purported ties that Hu had to the Chinese military. The university subsequently fired Hu. But Sadiku admitted in court that his accusation wasn’t true, according to the News Sentinel. “Based on my summary translations, my reports and my outline, no, Hu wasn’t involved with the Chinese military,” the paper quoted him as saying at trial.
Sitting in court listening to the FBI agent’s testimony, Chandler grew steadily more upset. “I kept looking for the big reveal, and there wasn’t one,” she said. “All I saw was a series of plausible errors, a lack of support from UT, and ruthless ambition on behalf of the FBI.” On Sadiku, she added: “I don’t think there could have been a worse witness than him.”
Prosecutors tried to paint Hu as duplicitous. In closing arguments, assistant U.S. attorney Casey Arrowood asserted, “He intentionally hid his ties to China to further his career. This case, ladies and gentlemen, is just that simple.”
Hu’s attorney had a different view.
“This case is really embarrassing,” Lomonaco countered. “It makes me want to vomit.”
The jury began deliberating that afternoon, June 14, in a spacious courthouse room that was supplied with snacks. It was clear to Chandler from the outset that the jurors didn’t agree. By the end of the day, after three hours of deliberations, they had not reached a verdict.
Driving home that night, she burst into tears. “I was so scared for this man,” she recalled. The trial had left her with the feeling that the government was charging Hu to justify its lengthy investigation. “They spent all this time and money on this big giant nothing burger, and they were not going to leave without a pound of flesh.”
The judge had instructed jurors not to read the news and not to discuss the case with family members or friends. Chandler had no idea that the case was being closely watched, and she worried that few people outside Knoxville knew about it. She knew that she couldn’t convict Hu on what she saw as minor administrative errors, a decision that could result in him going to prison for years. “I was prepared to be there the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year,” she said. “I wasn’t going to change my mind.”
The jury resumed deliberations on June 16 and discussed the case for the entire day. At 4:45 p.m., the foreperson reported to the court that they were deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Calls to scrap the China Initiative are mounting. At last week’s media briefing, John Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC urged the U.S. attorney’s office to drop Hu’s case and asked the Biden administration to declare a moratorium on new cases under the initiative. And a day after the judge declared a mistrial, Reps. Ted Lieu, Mondaire Jones, and Pramila Jayapal requested that the Justice Department’s inspector general investigate the FBI’s conduct in the case.
“The FBI has a long history of using racial, ethnic, and national origin bias as a proxy for national security threats,” said Brennan Center for Justice fellow Michael German, speaking at the media briefing. “This case is a perfect example of the problems with this type of approach.” German, a former FBI agent, added that the China Initiative creates pressure on agents to bring cases.
The Hu case is now being touted by the Chinese government as an example of U.S. malfeasance. “The false accusations expose the U.S. intelligence community’s usual ploy of investigation based on presumption of guilt,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference Tuesday.
The assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the case did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
Chandler is happy to see people questioning the case but still gets angry when she thinks about what happened.
After she was dismissed from jury duty last week, she found Hu’s GoFundMe page, which his wife started to cover his legal fees, and donated $20. She believes the government now owes Hu an apology and that the University of Tennessee should offer him his job back. As Chandler put it, “He deserves so much, this man, with what was done to him.”