Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) criticized the decision by NASA's Ames Research Center to prohibit Chinese scientists from attending an upcoming conference in a Tuesday letter to agency administrator Charles Bolden.
Wolf sent the letter to Bolden in response to a report last Friday by the Guardian citing an email by Mark Messersmith, a specialist with the Kepler space telescope project at Ames that researches earth-size planets outside the solar system.
Messersmith wrote that recent federal legislation requires the Ames Center to block Chinese scientists from attending the upcoming Second Kepler Science Conference in November, a move that sparked an outcry in the scientific community and calls to boycott the conference.
"Unfortunately … federal legislation passed last March forbids us from hosting any citizens of the People's Republic of China at a conference held at facilities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration," the email said. "Regarding those who are already working at other institutions in the U.S., due to security issues resulting from recent congressional actions, they are under the same constraints."
However, Wolf wrote in his letter that the federal statutes only apply to those officially aligned with the Chinese government or a Chinese-owned company.
"The congressional provision—which has been in place since early 2011—primarily restricts bilateral, not multilateral, meetings and activities with the communist Chinese government or Chinese-owned companies," he wrote. "It places no restrictions on activities involving individual Chinese nationals unless those nationals are acting as official representatives of the Chinese government. As such, the email from NASA Ames mischaracterizes the law and is inaccurate."
"I believe what Mr. Messersmith may have been referring to was a temporary restriction on Chinese nationals that you put in place earlier this year after serious security protocol flaws were brought to your attention by some in Congress, including me, specifically regarding violations at Ames and Langley Research Center . … However, any restriction against Chinese nationals on NASA centers is entirely an agency policy and not covered under the statutory restriction," he continued. "Furthermore, it was my understanding that NASA’s temporary restrictions had been lifted after a review of security protocols for foreign nationals at all NASA centers."
The most recent continuing resolution funding the government, signed into law by President Barack Obama in March, states that NASA cannot use its funds to bilaterally collaborate with China or any Chinese-owned company unless the coordination is specifically authorized by a subsequent law.
Those limitations extend to "the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA." However, the law also says those restrictions do not apply if the activity does not pose a threat to national or economic security and NASA informs Congress no later than 30 days prior to the event.
The 2014 appropriations bill for NASA, which passed the House Appropriations Committee in July but did not come to a vote on the House floor, contains the same language.
A NASA spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Geoff Marcy, an astronomy professor who was scheduled to give a presentation at the conference, told the Guardian that the ban on Chinese scientists was "completely unethical."
He told the Washington Free Beacon that he did not have time to discuss the issue but provided an email he sent to the conference organizers.
"Unfortunately, I cannot attend the meeting," he said in the email. "I understand people from certain other countries are being excluded from attending. In good conscience, I cannot attend a meeting that discriminates in this way. The meeting is about planets located trillions of miles away, with no national security implications."
A statement issued Tuesday by the conference’s Scientific Organizing Committee said the consequences of the law were "deplorable" and will have a "negative impact on open scientific inquiry." The committee said it is pursuing options to allow all scientists to participate or express their concerns about the legislation.
"We feel very strongly that it is wrong to exclude scientists, on the basis of nationality, from a meeting that welcomes free and open exchange of scientific ideas," the statement said. "We support our colleagues who express their objections to this nation-based exclusion through whatever actions they choose. However, we also feel that canceling this meeting, or otherwise compromising its success, would even further limit open scientific exchange."
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying also commented on the conference Wednesday in response to a question about reports that Chinese scientists were barred "under the pretext that this would affect national security."
"I have seen the relevant report, and have also noted that this discriminatory behavior has sparked opposition and boycott by many European and American scientists," Chunying said. "We hold the view that academic or scientific research activities should not be politicized."
Bolden responded to Wolf Thursday in an email statement. He said the exclusion of Chinese applicants to the conference was "unfortunate."
"Mid-level managers at Ames, in performing the due diligence they believed appropriate following a period of significant concern and scrutiny from Congress about our foreign access to NASA facilities, meetings, and websites, acted without consulting NASA HQ," he said in the email.
"Upon learning of this exclusion, I directed that we review the requests for attendance from scientists of Chinese origin and determine if we can recontact them immediately upon the reopening of the government to allow them to reapply. Any of them applying and meeting the clearance requirements in place for foreign citizens will be accepted for participation in the conference."
"A formal, more detailed response to the chairman's six-page letter will not be available until after the government is reopened," he added.
Wolf responded in his letter to Bolden to critics who say his efforts to raise alarms about China’s alleged espionage and space warfare programs have unnecessarily put NASA on edge.
"There is good reason Congress is concerned about providing the communist Chinese government with additional opportunities to work with the U.S. on space given their continued cyberattacks, espionage campaigns, and development of space weapons to use against the U.S."
Verizon’s 2013 data breach investigations report attributes 96 percent of recorded, state-affiliated attacks last year on businesses’ trades secrets and other intellectual property to Chinese hackers. Wolf said numerous senior military and intelligence officials have acknowledged China’s economic espionage and theft of dual-use and military technology in congressional testimony.
He also cited reports on China’s covert anti-satellite weapons development program. The Free Beacon reported on Oct. 2 that recent experiments involving Chinese satellite-grabbing spacecraft were part of the country’s secret "Star Wars" or ASAT program. A Chinese military affairs specialist told the Free Beacon that Chinese satellites with mechanical arms "could be used to take close-up images of U.S. satellites, to remove systems from those satellites and return them to China, to directly damage U.S. satellites, or to plant ‘mines’ on those satellites or close nearby."
Additionally, Wolf raised concerns about Ames staff members who allegedly transferred classified Department of Defense weapons system technology to foreign countries, according to whistleblowers who contacted members of Congress. The whistleblowers said Ames staff might have conducted the illegal transfers at foreign conferences where Chinese and other foreign officials were present, Wolf added.
Wolf said the Justice Department ultimately declined to review the case after a series of delays, adding that he believes the Ames Center has become "a rat’s nest of inappropriate and possibly illegal activities."
"Nonetheless, it appears that federal law enforcement felt there was a solid case against certain Ames staff members involving export violations," he said. "Yet there has been no accountability at Ames for these alleged criminal violations. This is inexcusable."
Wolf also said he hopes a recent report by NASA’s inspector general documenting security failures involving a Chinese national at NASA’s Langley Research Center, "will soon be made public."