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At LANL, political pawn or security risk?

June 3, 2019

Turab Lookman appeared to be a model scientist and citizen.

During his two decades of work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he gained global renown for his cutting-edge research on complex materials, he lived in Santa Fe, where he and his wife raised a family.

The lab boasted of his work in its Theoretical Physics Division in 2017, when it named him one of four Laboratory Fellows, a high honor. By that time, Lookman, 67, a native of India who has been a U.S. citizen since 2008, had co-authored two books, published more than 250 academic articles and received several distinguished science awards, the lab said in a website post.

Christopher Essex, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who has worked with Lookman, said he could only say “kind things about Turab, who has worked hard and earned his way.”

A former Los Alamos lab intern, who asked not to be named, called Lookman a “great mentor.”

But after Lookman’s termination from the lab and his recent indictment on federal charges of lying to government officials about his contact with a Chinese government agency, others who have worked with him have been silent. Some two dozen former colleagues and acquaintances did not respond to The New Mexican’s phone calls and emails seeking comment on the scientist or declined to comment.

Lookman did not return voicemail messages left at a phone number listed under his name. Nor did his wife, Lise Lookman. The couple have three grown children, who could not be reached for comment.

Several former co-workers and a fellow resident of Lookman’s northwest-side neighborhood in Santa Fe — where he was arrested May 23 and now remains on house arrest — said only that they were surprised by the allegations against him.

Though he is only accused of lying, prosecutors said in court that Lookman could pose the risk of leaked secrets or espionage against the U.S.

His indictment comes amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and China — the world’s largest economies — over intellectual property disputes and security concerns.

As China has worked in the last decade to raise its status as a superpower, it has built several recruitment initiatives to draw top-level scientists in high-tech fields. One such effort is the Thousand Talents Program at the center of Lookman’s charges, which offers high-dollar research grants to scientists. The White House has called the program a threat to the U.S.

Some scientists suggest Lookman is one of many pawns in this escalating trade war between the two economic rivals, caught up in President Donald Trump’s crackdown on researchers with ties to China’s recruitment programs.

Lookman does have well-documented ties to China. He and other Los Alamos scientists worked with a research lab there on a project aimed at accelerating the discovery of new materials. The lab touted the project in a news release in 2016 after the research team published an article about it in the journal Nature Communications.

The lab said in the news release, still posted to its website, that Los Alamos scientists had collaborated with the State Key Laboratory for Mechanical Behavior of Materials in China on research that could be used to support nuclear deterrence and energy security work at Los Alamos.

Since then, however, the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the lab, has said it will ban its employees from conducting research in collaboration with certain foreign agencies and restrict travel.

A man of the world or a threat?

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the lab, declined to answer questions about Lookman’s federal case or his termination.

Frank Fisher, a spokesman for the FBI, said in an email the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations but added, “The FBI and LANL have a longstanding relationship of working together to protect our nation’s most important secrets.”

Federal officials say Lookman held a Q Clearance — one of the nation’s highest levels of security clearance, offering access to top-secret information and critical facilities at the nuclear weapons lab — and was earning a salary of more than $190,000.

As part of his security-clearance process, prosecutors say, Lookman lied on a survey about whether he had sought a job or been offered a job by a foreign country. He is accused of failing to disclose he had communicated with China’s Thousand Talents program. He faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted on three federal charges.

Lookman pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday in a U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, where his trial is set for July 1.

A judge allowed his release from federal custody on electronic monitoring and limited travel — within Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties — after he posted a $50,000 property bond.

But during his arraignment, federal prosecutors portrayed him as a grave national security threat — a man with bank accounts and possible citizenship in several countries who has access to some of the nation’s most guarded nuclear secrets and can’t be trusted: He has lied repeatedly to federal officials about his citizenship, travel and communications with foreign nationals, prosecutors said.

“If he fled, it would quite frankly be a national security disaster,” prosecutor George Kraehe said in the hearing.

The type of nuclear weapons information Lookman could access, Kraehe said, is “the kind of gun he could point at a whole city, a whole country. And the United States tries to keep that kind of gun very safe and secure, and that’s why it entrusts possession of that gun to only the very most reliable people there are, people who always tell the truth.”

FBI agents seized under a search warrant Lookman’s laptop from his home, along with a hard drive, thumb drives, financial documents and Chinese communication. A judge required Lookman to turn in his U.S. and United Kingdom passports.

A investigator testified that a fellow physicist at the Los Alamos lab, Jack Shlachter, had reported to federal counterintelligence agents that he had heard Lookman say he was a “quad citizen.”

Shlachter, who also is a rabbi, could not be reached for comment on the case Friday evening after the start of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

Prosecutors were unable to confirm the number of countries in which Lookman has citizenship but said in court he has traveled recently to several countries, including Israel and Germany, and has had bank accounts in Canada, Britain and India.

A federal investigator said cash inside a Bank of China envelope also was found at his home.

Lookman does have connections with several nations. He moved with his family from India to the U.K. when he was 13 and went on to earn a doctorate from Kings College at the University of London. He then spent about 20 years as a professor at a Canadian university before joining LANL in 1999.

Although he became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 2008, he maintains a British passport.

Paul Linnenburger, a Santa Fe attorney representing Lookman, said the U.K. account cited by prosecutors was associated with the estate of Lookman’s parents, while the Canadian account appeared to be associated with a professional retirement fund.

Linnenburger argued that prosecutors have not provided any evidence that Lookman’s work at Los Alamos involved highly classified nuclear weapons secrets or that he inappropriately obtained such information, let alone planned to share it with a foreign government.

Instead, the attorney said, evidence showed most of Lookman’s work was publicly available. He also argued that Q Clearance is “nothing close to the sort of absolute, top-secret stuff the government keeps under lock and key.”

“We are hearing a lot of worst-case scenarios without any evidence to support it,” Linnenburger told the court.

In an interview with The New Mexican, he said, “We fully intend to fight these charges to the fullest.”

A Thousand Talents and tensions

Lookman isn’t the first U.S. scientist to face allegations involving China’s Thousand Talents Program.

In recent months, researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas in Houston and Emory University in Atlanta have been questioned about or fired over ties to the program. And in February 2018, a Florida scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Chunzai Wang, took a plea deal in a federal case, admitting guilt to one charge of taking money from a foreign government through Thousand Talents, according to court records.

In December and January, as tensions were growing between the Trump administration and China, the U.S. Department of Energy issued orders prohibiting all of its employees, subcontractors, fellows, interns and grantees from participating in foreign recruitment schemes and working with certain international research collaborations.

As part of a new science and technology “risk matrix,” which has not been made public, the Department of Energy also said it would not fund joint research or support “sensitive country foreign nationals.”

The department’s deputy secretary, Dan Brouillette, wrote in a memo, “Some foreign governments have made it a strategic priority to dominate high technology sectors that are currently led by U.S. entities, including Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories.”

Recruitment is part of an effort to “illegally acquire U.S. government-funded scientific research,” Brouillette wrote.

China established Thousand Talents in 2008 with a goal of offering research grants — more than $150,000 for an initial award — to attract Chinese scientists living in other nations. The program later was expanded to include foreign scientists.

Recruitment information posted to Nature.com indicates applicants for Thousand Talents grants, generally targeted at work in high-tech industries, must have an offer from a Chinese institution and commit to stay in China for three to five years.

The program has recruited more than 7,000 people in the last decade, according to the post.

A June 2018 White House report specifically lists the program among China’s efforts to threaten American technology and intellectual property.

Soon after the report was published, a Chinese-American man who worked for General Electric and had been selected by the program in 2012, Xiaoqing Zheng, was indicted in New York on federal charges of economic espionage.

Australian physicist and New York University professor Tim Byrnes, accepted into Thousand Talents in 2016, said in a Skype interview from Shanghai that the U.S. government’s crackdown on scientists tied to the program appears to be largely unfounded.

“These types of programs exist in many different countries — essentially a career startup type of grant for scientists and others,” he said, citing Australia’s Future Fellowships program as an example.

“A lot of Chinese people go to the the U.S. and Europe to further their academic career,” Byrnes said. “Now that China is emerging as a scientific power, there is a lot of funding availability here. … It is attractive, especially for people with a Chinese background.”

Byrnes first got a job as an assistant professor at New York University’s campus in Shanghai in 2016 and applied for Thousand Talents soon after, he said, when Democratic President Barack Obama was in office and the U.S. attitude about the program was far different — even considering it a prestigious.

With the grant funding, Byrnes is developing quantum computing technology, he said.

He isn’t required to disclose his research findings to China authorities, Byrnes added, saying, “Everything that we do is published in academic journals anyway.”

Danielle Prokop of The New Mexican contributed to this report.

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