Sherry Chen was arrested in front of her co-workers at her office at the National Weather Service and led away in handcuffs by six FBI agents on October 20, 2014. She was accused of being a spy, and charged with “allegedly illegally accessing a government database and lying about meeting with a high-level chinese official.” She faced up to 25 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
“Five months later, the ordeal abruptly ended,” according to the Sherry Chen Legal Defense Fund. “In March 2015, just a week before she was scheduled to go on trial, the government dismissed the case and dropped all charges against Ms. Chen without explanation.”
As the DOJ was dropping the charges however, her bosses at the Department of Commerce (which oversees the Weather Service), fired her based on the exact same false charges.
Ms. Chen has been fighting to get her job back for two years, pressing her case before the the federal Merit Systems Protection Board (an independent, bipartisan board charged with safeguarding the rights of civil servants). In April, the MSPB ruled that not only should Chen should get her job back, but she should receive back pay and her legal fees should be covered. The ruling affirmed that Chen is a “victim of a gross injustice” and that the Department of Commerce (DOC) had mishandled the case and hidden exculpatory evidence. The New York Times characterized the decision as “an unusually strong-worded statement.”
The Commerce Department has indicated it will appeal the decision.
On May 23, over 130 civil society groups (including DRAD) sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross requesting a meeting and calling on the DOC to comply with the MSPB’s decision and immediately allow Ms. Chen to go back to work. Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus also sent a letter to the Department of Commerce calling for a full and independent investigation. Members of Congress also spoke out at a press conference last week against profiling by the FBI and DOC.
Patterns of Persecution
The persecution of Ms. Chen follows a pattern of targeting Asian Americans, particularly Chinese-Americans, for espionage. Frank Wu, Distinguished Professor, UC Hastings College of the Law and Chair of the civil rights group Committee of 100, outlines for us the recent, and not-so-recent, history of racial profiling against Asian Americans beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, through the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, to the cases of Wen Ho Lee, Professor Xiaoxing Xi, Chunzai Wang and Sherry Chen.
A white paper, “Prosecuting Chinese Spies: An Empirical Analysis of the Economic Espionage Act,” published last year by the Committee of 100 provides empirical indications that Asians in America may be facing unfair and increasing racial profiling in espionage cases.
Wray Testimony Raises Concerns
At a February hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, an exchange between Senator Rubio and FBI Director Christopher Wray brought the issue of generalized suspicion of everyone of Chinese national origin into high relief. Senator Rubio explicitly asked Mr. Wray about the “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students[…]” Wray responded “I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline.” This extraordinarily broad and unqualified statement casts nearly every Chinese student, professor, and scientist unreasonably under suspicion.
In response to Wray’s comments, Chinese-American civil rights groups have asked him for a meeting, and DRAD wrote a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member, signed by ten civil society organizations, urging the Intelligence Committee committee to exercise its oversight authorities to ensure the FBI does not engage in impermissible profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. Neither the FBI, nor the Intelligence Committee, has responded.
But activists are energized around this issue. At the press conference in support of Sherry Chen, Haipei Shue, the President of United Chinese Americans noted that Asian Americans are increasingly speaking out against injustice. He promised to stand with Sherry “until the day the spirit of our constitution, that all men are created equal and should be treated equally, will prevail.”