He’s the only university professor or administrator ever prosecuted for violating the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Convicted in federal district court in Knoxville in 2008 of using graduate students from China and Iran on U.S. Air Force research that was off-limits to foreigners, and taking a laptop with restricted files to China, he exhausted his appeals up to the Supreme Court, which declined last year to hear the case. He began serving a four-year prison sentence in January.
The AECA has been around for 36 years; that it’s being used for the first time against a 75-year-old man epitomizes the growing tension between national security and academic freedom. American universities have long forged relationships with their counterparts abroad and attract hundreds of thousands of foreign graduate students and professors, especially in engineering and science. At the same time, universities are doing more defense-related research limited by the act to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. As China, Iran, and other countries chase U.S. technological secrets, federal enforcement agencies see universities—and globe-trotting professors such as Roth—as a weak link. “The open environment of a university is an ideal place to find recruits, propose and nurture ideas, learn, and even steal research data,” the FBI said in a 2011 report. “It is unknown how the Chinese used the information they obtained from Roth, but because they invited him to visit China and he had a sensitive report e-mailed to him while there, it should be assumed they were interested in his research and planned to utilize it.”
This case involves violations of the Arms Export Control Act, which imposes export controls on “defense articles and services” without a license. Defendant-appellant John Roth worked as a consultant on a United States Air Force defense research project, which had been awarded to Atmospheric Glow Technologies, Inc. in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The project entailed developing plasma technology for use on military aircraft. The government charged Roth with exporting data from the project on a trip to China and allowing two foreign nationals in Knoxville access to certain data and equipment in violation of the Act.
A jury in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee convicted him of one count of conspiracy, fifteen counts of exporting defense articles and services without a license, and one count of wire fraud.