University of Tennessee (UT) Professor John Reece Roth, 72, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was sentenced to 48 months in prison for violating the Arms Export Control Act by conspiring to illegally export, and actually exporting, technical information relating to a U.S. Air Force (USAF) research and development contract. (See indictment here)

Prof. Roth was convicted by a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee of conspiring with Atmospheric Glow Technologies, Inc. (AGT) to unlawfully exporting fifteen different defense articles to a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), 22 U.S.C. § 2778.

Roth and Atmospheric Glow Technologies (a licensee of UT technology) were indicted in connection with violations of the Arms Export Control Act.   AGT had two contracts with the U.S. Air Force to conduct research and hired Professor Roth in connection with the contracts. The technology under development was controlled by the Department of State.

droneThe illegal exports by Dr. Roth of technical information, known as “technical data,” related to his illegal disclosure and transport of restricted military information associated with the USAF contract to develop specialized plasma technology for use on an advanced form of an unmanned air vehicle (UAV), also known as a drone.

The illegal exports by Dr. Roth of military technical information involved specific information about advanced plasma technology that had been designed and was being tested for use on the wings of drones operating as a weapons or surveillance systems. The Arms Export Control Act prohibits the export of defense-related materials, including the technical data, to a foreign national or a foreign nation.

The AECA prohibits the export of defense-related materials, including the technical data, to a foreign national or a foreign nation. These defense articles related to different specific military technical data that had been restricted and was associated with the USAF project to develop plasma technology for use on weapon system drones.

Exports include “deemed exports,” defined as an unauthorized release of technology or services to a foreign national (defined as an natural person who is not a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident or a political refugee/asylum holder under 8 U.S.C. §1324(b)(a)(3)), either domestically or overseas. Deemed exports occur when access to defense technology or services is provided to a foreign national.

The government alleged that Roth did not obtain permission to take the sensitive documents to China and lied to the Defense Department about his employment of Chinese foreign national Xin Dai and Iranian foreign national Sirous Nourgostar.  Both graduate research assistants were given unrestricted access to information about the technology developed for use in the Air Force drones. Roth was also accused of ordering Xin Dai to e-mail to another Chinese citizen a report that also contained military defense secrets

A jury found that Dr. Roth violated the deemed export rules when he assigned a Chinese national in his laboratory to work on the plasma research project without first obtaining the appropriate license from the State Department and when he used a Chinese colleague’s workstation to download export controlled data.

What seemed to have sunk Roth’s boat was that he was advised by a UT export control officer to not disclosure the information. Violation of the Act requires willful conduct and specific intent (“voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty”). But, according to the government’s trial brief, Roth knew what he was doing and forged ahead anyway:

On May 3, 2006, AGT, through Project Manager Briggs, advised Roth that, “for obvious security reasons, your Iranian student is not going to be acceptable” as a replacement for Dai. Roth responded that he did not feel it was AGT’s position to tell him who he could use on the project.

On May 5, 2006, Roth met with Robin Witherspoon, the Contract Administrator and Export Control Officer at UT, and attempted to add Nourgostar to the Phase II contract and requested UT to seek an export license to accomplish this. Witherspoon then learned from Roth that Chinese national Dai had been working on the Phase II project since May 2005 without a license from the State Department. Three days later, on May 8, 2006, Witherspoon e-mailed Roth advising him that the Phase II contract was export controlled and providing him with the text of the clause so stating. She warned Roth to be cautious about what he took with him on his forthcoming trip to China and not to disclose anything about the Phase II project. Witherspoon called Roth on May 11, 2006, and advised him that she spoke to the State Department and found out that both Iran and China are prohibited countries for export control purposes.

Apparently, Dr. Roth believed that his research qualified for a fundamental research exclusion.  Roth traveled to China and presented a lecture at Fudan University titled “Subsonic Plasma Aerodynamics for Flight Control of Aircraft.”  On return to the US, his USB drive storage device and laptop were found to contain reports and the entire AGT Proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The DARPA proposal and the
reports were certified as a defense articles, i.e., technical data as defined in the U.S. Munitions List.

Dr. Roth probably didn’t set out with the intent of organizing an international spy ring.  I could imagine that, as a professor with his reputation at stake, he let his ego and his need to report cutting edge research cloud his judgment.

The case is a reminder that universities need to be careful in complying with the the Arms Export Control Act in doing sponsored research.  Anyone working with export controlled technology should review their access protocols before booking that next trip abroad.

The goods and technical data subject to control under AECA are articulated at the U.S. Munitions List, which can be found at 22 C.F.R. § 121, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Technical data includes information required for the design, development, production, testing, or modification of defense articles. Defense services are also regulated, examples of which are furnishing of assistance to foreign persons in the design, development, testing or use of defense articles, whether this takes place in the U.S. or elsewhere.

You can see the Government’s Trial Brief here.

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  1. Once in the academic mill it is difficult for some people to not pamper their ego.
    The real danger of spies is elsewhere. Be it via hacking, internships, agents etc.

  2. Maybe the mind of this professor really was clouded! How could you fly to China and hold a lecture about sensitive information concerning the country´s security?
    Ferienwohnungen Oberstdorf

  3. Haha, what a stupid man. I mean how could someone be as stupid as this guy. Almost as silly as the most “darwin awards” stories. Just unbelievable.