Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 24 No. 05
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence
Article 8 of 12
January 31, 2020

Ex-LANL Physicist Takes Plea Deal in Chinese Recruitment Case

By Dan Leone

A former physicist at the U.S. Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory on Friday pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal authorities about his alleged connection to a Chinese government-sponsored talent recruiting program.

Turab Lookman, formerly of the New Mexico facility’s Theoretical Division, pleaded guilty to the second of three counts of fraud and making false statements: an offense that could cost him up to five years in prison, three years of supervised released, and a fine as large as $250,000.

The Department of Justice will recommend Lookman spend no more than 10 months in prison, according to the plea agreement posted online Friday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico. In addition, the U.S. will dismiss the other two counts of lying, according to the agreement.

The court had not scheduled Lookman for sentencing at deadline Friday for Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor.

In May, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging Lookman with three counts of fraud and making false statements after he allegedly lied — initially on an electronic form in 2017, then to a lab counterintelligence official in 2018 — about his connection to the China-sponsored Thousand Talents program. The program compensates hirees for contributions to Chinese research.

The Donald Trump administration characterizes Thousand Talents as an effort by Beijing to steal U.S. intellectual property and secrets.

Lookman worked at Los Alamos for at least 20 years, according to his LinkedIn profile.

After the government indicted him, the Department of Energy banned its employees from participating in Thousand Talents.

Lookman is not even the only scientist this week to face the justice system over such an association.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it had charged the head of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, Charles Lieber, with one count of lying to authorities in 2018 about working in the Thousand Talents program.

Lieber, who since 2008 has received some $15 million in U.S. grants to research nanotechnology, had been associated with Thousand Talents “from in or about 2012 to 2017,” the Justice Department alleged. In 2011, it said, Lieber was a “strategic scientist” at China’s Wuhan University of Technology, which paid him to help organize nanotechnology research in the nation.

Among others the Trump administration has busted for cozying up to Thousand Talents is Chunzai Wang, formerly of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2018, a federal judge in Minnesota sentenced Wang to time served for illegally supplemented his government salary by contracting with Thousand Hands, and accepting a salary from the Chinese-government sponsored Changjiang Scholars Program.

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