Bookshelf: The Scientist and the Spy

Ask me about places near my house that might be likely targets of industrial espionage operations and my mind would turn south. Head down Nixon Road and follow it a mile or so; at the second roundabout hang a right onto Huron Parkway, then start looking for the sign announcing the entrance to Ann Arbor’s Google campus. Or follow that same roundabout around to the left instead and cross Plymouth Road to arrive at Mcity, the University of Michigan’s autonomous vehicle testing grounds. Venture deeper into Michigan’s North Campus and you’ll see lots of buildings labeled “research facility” and “laboratory”; eventually you’ll come to Michigan Medicine, the sprawling hospital complex that houses innumerable world-class physicians working to identify and cure diseases many of us have never even heard of. For anyone seeking the secrets of Ann Arbor’s thriving advanced science and technology sectors, the neighborhood just below mine is a target-rich environment.

I wouldn’t think similar opportunities would lie to the north, where a scattering of recently constructed subdivisions like mine quickly gives way to expansive fields studded with weathered red barns and heavy-duty farming equipment. In summer months, signs announcing the availability of fresh produce and eggs at small farm stands appear at regular intervals as I drive along the narrow rural roads of Washtenaw County. Blue skies stretch above green cornstalks, meeting in a flat line at the distant horizon. Southeast Michigan is most famous for its factories, but agriculture continues to play an important role in the region’s economy.

Those farms I drive past might not seem like potential targets of espionage, but for a certain kind of spy the crops growing in their fields can be just as desirable as the latest vehicle technology developed at Mcity. And if those spies happens to be working on behalf of a Chinese company, they could find themselves at the center of a sprawling and expensive years-long FBI investigation.

That’s the unexpected story told by science journalist Mara Hvistendahl in her compelling new “corn espionage thriller,” The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage (Amazon affiliate link). Focusing on the case of Robert Mo, a PRC national working in the United States on behalf of Beijing-based agricultural company DBN, Hvistendahl widens her gaze to raise thought-provoking questions about the implications Mo’s case and others have for scientific collaboration between the United States and China in the 21st century.

In short, tight chapters Hvistendahl weaves together the stories of three men: Robert Mo; Kevin Montgomery, an Illinois seed breeder whom Mo hired as a DBN consultant and who later served as an FBI informant; and Mark Betten, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation into Mo. Hvistendahl’s narrative moves between industry and government, as she explains (with welcome clarity) the science of corn breeding and questions the long history of spying accusations lodged against Chinese American scientists.

Robert Mo is hardly James Bond. An engineer who studied the mechanics of boiling, Mo was among the thousands of Chinese students who came to the United States in the 1990s for a graduate degree. After completing his PhD, however, he failed to secure stable academic employment; eventually, his sister prevailed on her husband, DBN’s billionaire CEO, to give Mo a job. Though Mo knew little about agriculture, he needed the money. Working as DBN’s international business manager provided him with a six-figure salary, enabling Mo to purchase a large house in Boca Raton, where he lived with his wife and two children. And while he might have secured the position through family connections, Robert Mo wanted to prove himself a hard-working and valuable addition to DBN.

His eagerness to please eventually led Mo to an Iowa cornfield in the fall of 2011. Mo and two DBN employees from China had snuck into the field—a research plot for the agricultural giant Monsanto—in search of loose ears of genetically modified (GMO) corn. When a farmer called the sheriff’s department to report that he had spotted the three men, the incident seemed odd, but minor, to the deputy who responded: Mo politely explained that he and his colleagues were agricultural researchers “driving across the Midwest looking at crops.” The deputy let them off with a warning not to enter fields without first getting permission from their owners. Something about the incident, however, didn’t sit right with the deputy, and he filed a short report of “suspicious activity.” That report would later be the first clue to the FBI that Mo and DBN were up to something.

Genetically modified crops are not yet legal in China, but DBN wanted to be prepared for the day when the government changed that regulation. (As a powerful and well-connected corporation, it’s likely DBN’s leadership had hints from government insiders that such approval was on the horizon.) Rather than spend time and money developing its own GMO seed lines, the company’s chief scientist decided that Mo would source them in the United States and send samples back to Beijing. As Hvistendahl wryly notes, “Real research takes time. Theft is expedient—especially if there is little chance of getting caught.”

But Robert Mo is a hapless figure and there was almost no question that he would get caught sooner rather than later. Economic espionage (only made a federal crime in 1996) is one of the FBI’s top priorities and China its biggest foe. Once Mark Betten stumbled upon Robert Mo’s name and that Iowa police report, his investigation of Mo’s activities was relentless and ever-expanding: The Scientist and the Spy details low-speed pursuits across flat expanses of Midwestern farmland, expensive aerial surveillance missions, and tenuous warrant applications (in one, Betten listed the fact that Mo spoke in Mandarin with another U.S.-based Chinese national working in agriculture as “probable cause”). Over the course of two years, the case involved 73 agents and yielded “four gigabytes of surveillance video, seventeen thousand intercepted emails, detailed GPS logs, boxes of documents taken from Robert’s home, transcriptions from hundreds of hours of audio recordings and intercepted telephone calls, and numerous FBI 302s—the bureau’s official accounts of interviews with sources.”

In the end, the FBI got its man; Mo was arrested, charged, and sentenced to three years in prison when he accepted a plea deal. (Having served his time, Mo is currently awaiting deportation back to China.) Six of his DBN colleagues remain wanted by the FBI, but since the United States has no extradition treaty with the PRC, they’ll remain free. DBN never skipped a beat; Robert Mo was merely one small cog in the corporate machine.

This isn’t the story of an innocent man: Robert Mo committed the crimes he was accused of. Yet, it’s also difficult to read The Scientist and the Spy and not conclude that the FBI’s investigation of Mo and DBN was a wise use of time, money, and resources. Was the theft of corn seed—from Monsanto, a private company now owned by Germany’s Bayer—really that significant a threat to American national security? How much of a competitive edge was DBN ever going to gain? And did DBN even know what it was doing with this whole scheme? As Kevin Montgomery explained to Hvistendahl, “If DBN wanted to steal seed, the approach its executives had chosen was the least efficient one he could imagine,” and whatever GMO technology they managed to acquire would be obsolete within a few years anyway; seed companies constantly seek to improve their products. “Where the FBI saw an elaborate effort to steal intellectual property and threaten national security,” Hvistendahl writes, “Kevin saw a collection of inept criminals bumbling around cornfields.”

But the specter of China, of communism, of competition hovers above this entire story, inviting questions about how far the FBI has really come since the Red Scare of the J. Edgar Hoover years. Hvistendahl looks back at that history, when any scientist with Chinese ancestry who came into contact with Mao’s PRC could fall under suspicion of spying for the enemy. In the post-Cold War years, FBI leaders became convinced by a theory that Beijing relies on “non-traditional collectors”—average people not employed by state security—to carry out its clandestine operations, whether for national security or industrial espionage. “Taken to its natural conclusion,” Hvistendahl explains, “the theory meant that the Chinese government commanded a network of amateur spies and that all incidences of trade secret theft, whether of widgets or weapons, traced back to the Chinese Communist Party.” FBI Director Christopher Wray has also spoken of Chinese students studying at American universities as potential clandestine actors and described the United States as facing “a whole-of-society threat” posed by Chinese espionage.

When investigators start, even unconsciously, with the presumption that anyone from the PRC, or of Chinese descent, or with ties to China might be working, even unofficially, for the CCP, innocent actions can look suspicious, and small infractions can be cast as treason. This was the case with Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist at Los Alamos in the late 1990s who was arrested for leaking nuclear secrets to the PRC. The charges against Lee quickly fell apart; ultimately, he pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling classified information.

Wen Ho Lee is the most famous example of a recurring issue: U.S. Attorneys bringing espionage charges against ethnic Chinese defendants, often to big headlines, and then dropping them later due to lack of evidence. “One minute the accused were enemies of the state, and the next minute it was as if nothing had happened,” Hvistendahl writes, leaving the so-called spies with tarnished reputations and little ability to erase these blemishes.

I finished The Scientist and the Spy regarding Robert Mo as an inept corporate spy, attempting to carry out an absurd mission on behalf of his underhanded employer. I didn’t see anything to suggest that his actions were in service to anything but corporate greed and a desire to cut corners. But, as Hvistendahl argues, we can view his case, as she did, “as a lens that refracted growing hostility between the United States and China.” The long shadow cast by the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations over the past decade could have influenced how the FBI handled Mo’s case—the broad scope of the investigation, the dogged pursuit of an amateur criminal. And when people read about Mo’s crime, they might have been more likely to view it as one example of a pervasive and insidious foreign threat rather than a quirky and unsuccessful attempt at industrial theft.

We often treat that downward spiral in the bilateral relationship as something happening at the highest levels of government: Donald Trump versus Xi Jinping, the Foreign Ministry sniping at the State Department and vice versa. We don’t always realize how poor relations at the top affect other sectors outside the government. As the United States and China normalized relations in the late 1970s, science and technology were a nexus of exchange; now, though, such collaboration is hindered by suspicion and an over-simplification in the U.S. that can equate all actions by Chinese nationals, institutions, and firms as carried out on behalf of their government—and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party.

China, of course, has spies, just as the United States does. And its government does seek to capture American scientific knowledge through efforts such as the Thousand Talents program, which provides substantial research funding and income to foreign scientists who set up labs in Chinese institutions. (Researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center, MD Anderson, Harvard, and elsewhere have found themselves under investigation for taking Thousand Talents money, often because they failed to disclose their connection with the program to U.S. funding agencies.) Any engagement or exchange must be carefully scrutinized to ensure it’s not contributing to CCP human-rights violations (as with the recently dissolved research partnership between MIT and Chinese artificial intelligence firm iFlyek, which has supplied technology used in the surveillance of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang).

We are in a moment, however, when it feels easier to put the kibosh on all collaboration rather than expend the effort necessary to distinguish which exchanges are reasonable and legitimate and which are not. By warning about the pervasiveness of “non-traditional collectors” and the “whole-of-society threat” they pose, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies make the United States a less welcome place for Chinese scientists, discourage American scientists from working with colleagues in the PRC, and make it less likely that the two countries will join efforts on any projects, from developing autonomous vehicles to growing better corn.

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