U.S. Attorney Neal H. McBride announced a plea agreement Thursday with former NASA contractor Bo Jiang in which Jiang accepted being deported from the U.S. within 48 hours.
Jiang also agreed to plead guilty to one criminal count of misusing government equipment, including a NASA laptop, to take "extensive proprietary and confidential information," including programming source codes, "to operate a functioning, real time, image enhancement system for use in aircraft" to China in 2012.
The deal was announced in federal court in Newport News.
Federal agents arrested Jiang on March 16 at Washington Dulles International Airport as he tried to board a plane for Beijing after purchasing a one-way ticket. He was in federal custody from then until Thursday's court session.
Missing from the deal was any mention of espionage allegations, despite Jiang recently becoming the focus of congressional critics who pointed to his case as an example of what they believe to be lax security at the space agency, and the presence of a trial attorney from the Justice Department's counter-espionage department as a party to the agreement.
Jiang obtained a master's degree from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. The university is on a U.S. government "entity list" that is supposed to warn U.S. officials that the institution is engaged in activities linked to the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless, Jiang was admitted into NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia as a contractor and was permitted unescorted access to the center.
Other federal charges, including providing false and fraudulent information to U.S. officials, were dropped in the plea agreement.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee that has oversight over NASA, said he remained concerned despite the deportation order.
"I remain concerned that neither the prosecutors nor NASA have addressed the original question of why a NASA laptop was inappropriately provided to a restricted foreign national associated with what they call 'an entity of concern,' why he was allowed in a previous trip to take the laptop and all the information back to China," Wolf told The Washington Examiner.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, the Chinese national "agrees to cooperate fully and truthfully" with federal officials during the next 48 hours and be available for "debriefing as the United States may require."
NASA suspended Jiang last December after space agency whistleblowers alleged the Chinese national had taken a NASA laptop and other electronic media to China last November. It was unclear by Thursday's plea agreement if he shared the information with Chinese authorities.
"I appreciate the whistleblowers coming forward," Wolf said. "You have to give them a lot of credit. They were willing to risk their careers."
Previously, The Examiner reported that Jiang obtained the imagery data from his sponsor, the late Zia ur-Rahman, a G-14 scientist working at NASA Langley.
On Wednesday, the newspaper reported Rahman's data was given to Jiang by two of Rahman's colleagues who are NASA employees.
The NASA Inspector General has promised to investigate the Jiang case, as well as another incident involving foreign nationals at the NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California, The Washington Examiner has learned. His findings are to be released in a few months.
Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.