The Chilling Surveillance and Wrongful Arrest of a Chinese-American Physics Professor

Most of the innocent people whose emails and phone calls the government spies on never find out. Not so for Professor Xiaoxing Xi, a Chinese-American physics professor at Temple University.

One morning in May 2015, FBI agents showed up at Professor Xi’s house before dawn. They arrested him at gunpoint while his wife and daughters looked on, and went through the family’s home from top to bottom. The government charged Professor Xi with wire fraud, but in its court filings, it cast him as a spy for China who shared sensitive technology.

Four agonizing months later, all charges were dropped. Government agents, he learned, had been secretly spying on his private communications, possibly for years, using tools designed for pursuing foreign agents. Yet the indictment that resulted from this investigation was simply wrong and, ultimately, appeared to be based on misrepresentations about scientific facts and technology. 

Today, the ACLU is joining a civil rights lawsuit brought by Professor Xi seeking damages against the government and individual FBI agents who pursued the indictment in his case. Alongside our co-counsel, we are filing an amended complaint that sets out troubling allegations of unconstitutional government conduct (elaborating on claims originally filed in May 2017). The complaint challenges the government’s baseless and malicious prosecution of Professor Xi, as well as the invasive surveillance tools that agents apparently used to spy on him and his family without cause. It also alleges that Professor Xi was subject to the same bias and discrimination that has led the FBI and the Justice Department to wrongly pursue and prosecute several other innocent Americans of Chinese descent.

The criminal indictment incorrectly alleged that Professor Xi shared information about a device called a “pocket heater,” in violation of an agreement he made to keep its design a secret. To support these charges, the indictment cited emails that Professor Xi had exchanged with his colleagues in China. In reality, however, Professor Xi’s emails concerned a completely different kind of technology and had nothing to do with a pocket heater at all. Indeed, Professor Xi was engaged in lawful and routine academic collaboration. Once Professor Xi and his defense attorneys presented this information to the prosecutors, the government dismissed the indictment.

Before Professor Xi’s arrest, the government secretly used some of its most powerful spying tools to listen in on his phone calls and read through his emails. Some of this surveillance was authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, presumably based on the same incorrect allegations contained in the criminal indictment. But, as the complaint explains, other elements of this secret surveillance were completely warrantless — and were conducted under two controversial spying authorities known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Executive Order 12333. These surveillance tools affect countless Americans, and the fact that they can be misused to invade Americans’ privacy and pursue criminal investigations — without the government first getting a warrant — is deeply disturbing.

The government uses Section 702 and Executive Order 12333 to access Americans’ international emails and phone calls on a vast scale. Although the government may not “target” American citizens or residents for electronic surveillance using Section 702 or Executive Order 12333, it nonetheless relies on this surveillance to sweep up the communications of innocent Americans who are in contact with individuals abroad, sometimes in bulk. The whistleblower Edward Snowden and others have emphasized the astonishing breadth of these surveillance programs — including the government’s extensive spying on universities and scientific research institutions in China. Professor Xi’s academic work required regular communication with counterparts in China, and it was precisely those communications that the government later cited in court papers when Professor Xi was wrongly arrested. (Critical reforms to Section 702 are presently being considered by Congress.)

The consequences of this spying — and the baseless prosecution that followed — were devastating for Professor Xi and his family. His academic reputation was shattered. Temple University forced him to take administrative leave and suspended him as interim chair of the Department of Physics. He could no longer access his lab or the students under his supervision, preventing him from working on state-of-the-art research projects.

Do we want to live in a world where academics need to fear surveillance and prosecution simply because they are communicating with colleagues abroad? The chilling effect on academic collaboration and freedom of expression, both of which have long been protected under the First Amendment, are clear.

Our government claims to encourage international scientific collaboration. Unconstitutional surveillance that chills that collaboration is not the way to go about it.

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This was domestic. The accused was an American citizen, the events took place on American soil. That's what's called 'domestic' in law enforcement. The FBI also did obtain a warrant, in case you missed that part. Doesn't matter if they were colluding with foreign parties, either.
Proactive law enforcement requires information gathering, unless you want another 9/11. If all that police do is react, react, react, then you have a lot more dead people than if they prevent, contain and deter.
Actually, nowhere in the Bill of Rights will you find the word 'privacy'. Or 'surveillance'.
Warrantless surveillance is Constitutional. You stand on your porch or front lawn and stare at someone all day long, so long as you don't go on their property.
The point of the Fourth Amendment is to provide security of a person, their possessions, and their home from a warrantless search and seizure, or one performed without probable cause. How one defines probable cause is another story entirely.
Nowhere in the article was a 'National Security Division' mentioned. Did you mean the National Security Agency?
I'll give you credit for the COINTELPRO part, but as you said, it was less the FBI making enemies out of controversial figures than it was the Directors selecting those individuals - plus internal failure to control those illegal activities.
But again, not foreign work, this was domestic. As long as one of the parties was an American citizen, or it occurred on American soil, it's domestic.


Ironically we educate 1000s of Chinese in our graduate institutions that return to China to design weapons that stand ready to destroy us. Where is the sense? Where is the outrage?

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

The Chinese. Don't get me started.


To the Chinese Industrial Espionage is all in a typical day. Their goals are long range and their reach is far. We'd better step it up or we're all going to be speaking Mandarin while eating rice. Not that I don't like rice, it's their Political system that i'm uneasy with. (see Friendly Spies) The U.S. is way behind the curve on this.


It is extremely concerning that an alleged violation of a non-disclosure agreement with a non-governmental entity is considered espionage by the government. The parties to the agreement should be handling the alleged violation via lawsuits, not criminal charges. Unless the technology is banned for export by the federal government the feds have no business meddling in such matters.


This ACLU supporter is not a Trump fan but be careful about unintended consequences!

We may be setting the stage for so-called national security agencies to grossly violate our social media account's privacy filters.

In other words anyone, including you, that now posts anything on "political" issues now must be vetted to make sure the Freedom of Speech exercise was made by an American. In other words it is not based on the truth or substance of the legal speech exercise but who said it.

The problem is that many police and so-called national security officials totally despise the First Amendment - even if exercised legally. If the First Amendment exercise is truthful and accurate, does it really matter who said it? Do we really need a European style "nanny-state" government to censor what we read?

We should all be concerned with foreign influence, as long as it investigations originate from the foreign person and doesn't lead to a dragnet thought police nosing into everyone's personal affairs.

The one thing we do know for sure, every so-called national security agency has a long and well-documented history of trying to silence legal First Amendment exercises!


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