Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
The Courts Government Education News

Professor Gets 4 Years in Prison for Sharing Drone Plans With Students 354

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the read-before-you-sign dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Retired University of Tennessee Professor Dr. John Reece Roth has been sentenced to four years in prison after he allowed a Chinese graduate student to see sensitive information on Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. In 2004, the company Roth helped found, Atmospheric Glow Technologies, won a US Air Force contract to develop a plasma actuator that could help reduce drag on the wings of drones, such as the ones the military uses. Under the contract, for which Roth was reportedly paid $6,000, he was prohibited from sharing sensitive data with foreign nationals. Despite warnings from his university's Export Control Officer, in 2006, Roth took a laptop containing sensitive plans with him on a lecture tour in China and also allowed graduate students Xin Dai of China and Sirous Nourgostar of Iran to work on the project. 'The illegal export of restricted military data represents a serious threat to national security,' says David Kris of the US Department of Justice. 'We know that foreign governments are actively seeking this information for their own military development. Today's sentence should serve as a warning to anyone who knowingly discloses restricted military data in violation of our laws.' During his trial, Roth testified that he was unaware that hiring the graduate students was a violation of his contract. 'This whole thing has not helped me, it has not helped the university,' said Roth. 'And it has probably not helped this country, either.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Professor Gets 4 Years in Prison for Sharing Drone Plans With Students

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @04:58PM (#28575049)

    I'm not entirely surprised by either the sentence, or the seeming lack of security consciousness on the part of the professor and possibly his school. When working on defense-related work it's always best to treat sensitive material with the respect it deserves - in many cases there's no need to go overboard with encryption, physical security, or whatnot, but reasonable measures (e.g., not bringing the Goddamned laptop overseas) should always be taken.

    However, from what I heard, the project Dr. Roth was working on wasn't entirely black-ops sort of stuff - he was merely integrating technology previously developed by himself (and others) under funding not remotely related to defense.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:10PM (#28575143)

    OK, so I'm in Canada, and everyone knows that Canadians are slackers when it comes to security (sarcasm for the humor challenged).

    The prof had to be ignoring the rules deliberately. The paperwork I had to sign required the details of every student working on the project. They didn't have to be security cleared but they sure did have to be Canadian or American. There was no chance to skip over that clause in the contract; a security guy read it to me out loud and made damn sure I understood what it meant.

  • Re:Not long enough (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ironsides (739422) on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:17PM (#28575195) Homepage Journal
    Tad excessive? You've never heard of the Rosenbergs [wikipedia.org], I take it. What country are you from?
  • Re:Why stop there.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by caladine (1290184) on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:22PM (#28575231)
    My experience with US security clearance was exactly as you describe. I literally had 8 hours of reading/signing documents and had to sign at least 3 that told me explicitly who I could and could not talk to about what I was doing. Each was read to me after I read it myself, and they went line by line to make sure I understood it. Roth is completely full of crap if he claims he didn't know. The process left me with the distinct impression that if I even had a hint that I shouldn't be talking about it or wasn't sure, I should keep my big mouth shut. The funny part is, I'm not sure I actually saw anything classified during my stint. Not that I'm going to be talking about any of it, because I'm just not sure, but still. Doubly funny was debriefing, that also took 8 hours where they went over everything again that I had gone through when I received clearance in the first place.
  • by thepainguy (1436453) <thepainguy@gmail.com> on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:24PM (#28575243) Homepage
    ...until I Googled "plamsa actuator" and found a relevant article ranked number one...

    http://www.engr.uky.edu/~jdjacob/fml/research/plasma/index.html [uky.edu]

    ...and a bunch of other good articles listed after it.

    Does the DOD think they not have the Internet in China and Iran?

    Just by reading this article, you can get a good sense of the concept, which has to do with creating high-speed, non-mechanical aircraft control surfaces via boundary layer manipulation. Is this really that big of a secret?

    I'll post more on this after I investigate the thump on the roof and see who's at the front door.
  • $6K - WTF? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:25PM (#28575261)

    What the hell kind of contract with the DoD is only $6K?
    The cost of a security clearance for one person is at least $40K.
    Maybe it was one stage of a multi-stage contract, but with the way the news and prosecutors like to exaggerate everything you think they would have quoted the cost of the entire thing.

  • Re:$6K - WTF? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bkpark (1253468) on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:43PM (#28575385) Homepage

    What the hell kind of contract with the DoD is only $6K?

    There must be a typo somewhere. My travel grant to India this year is not too far off from that amount.

    Or, if there was no mistake, that's probably the consulting fee personally paid to the professor himself (usually grants pay for grad students, postdocs, and equipments, not the professor's salary, although probably his travel expenses and such).

    P.S. According to the AP article linked from TFA, "Roth, 71, testified at trial that he didn't believe he broke the law because the research had yet to produce anything tangible. He said he received only about $6,000 from the contract."

    So $6k is the amount disbursed so far; there's no mention of how much was the grant itself.

  • Re:Why stop there.. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:51PM (#28575445)

    Actually TFA doesn't say the material was actually Classified and there's a good chance it wasn't. Data doesn't need to be classified to fall under export restrictions under ITAR/EAR regulations.

    Also, just taking he data out of the country is a violation, irrespective of sharing it with anyone.

  • Re:Lying or stupid? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Green Salad (705185) on Friday July 03, 2009 @05:55PM (#28575483) Homepage

    I simply don't buy into any arguments presented thus far, for defending a lighter sentence.

    I'm the absent-minded type. From experience, I can assure people that the sheer number of security briefings, security awareness tests and periodioc recertifications and signed contracts makes it so even the dumbest idiot can't claim they weren't aware. And yeah, it's corny or awkward as it is to say "I've agreed not to discuss it" to a loved one or potential employer.

    With experience, you learn to deflect the "but surely you trust me, don't you?" with "I trust you and think you deserve to know. However, that is not the issue. I gave a solemn promise and feel an ethical duty to make my word mean something. Please don't continue to put me in awkward situations or I will start to think less of you."

    The interview process in my own company involves and ethics/honor test that asks the applicant about classified work and if they start to give details, they're not invited back. Who wants to hire dishonorable people to work next to them? Not me.

    As far as employment, you can get validation that you were legitimately employed and others in the reseach/tech/engineering industry are used to dealing with it. All classified programs will have an associated FSO (Facility Security Officer) that can provide you process guidance and that persons name and contact info is made clear in the security training and if anyone legitimately wants help with this, drop me a line and I'll do my best.

    From experience, the real issue is lack of maturity and strong personal sense of ethics.

  • Re:Why stop there.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mysidia (191772) on Friday July 03, 2009 @06:00PM (#28575521)

    Can't send them back if they're already in China. From the summary:

    in 2006, Roth took a laptop containing sensitive plans with him on a lecture tour in China and also allowed graduate students Xin Dai of China and Sirous Nourgostar of Iran...

    So the students may get some chinese gov't folks knocking on their door, to interview them and ask them lots of questions about the project, but unless their in the US, the US folks won't be doing anything with them....

    The article suggests the prof didn't believe the info was sensitive. Maybe it wasn't. That's pretty hard to honestly tell without seeing the info, or know whether it was info he had been provided, or whether it was info discovered by his research (possibly research prior to the military project). But clearly someone thought the info was worth keeping secret.

    Still isn't breach of contract a separate issue from export of military technology ?

    During his trial, Roth testified that he was unaware that hiring the graduate students was a violation of his contract, otherwise he would not have participated since his plasma research also has non-military applications. "This whole thing has not helped me, it has not helped the university," he told Nature in 2006. "And it has probably not helped this country, either."

    John Santarius, a plasma physicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who has known Roth for two decades says that he always found Roth to be patriotic and careful. âoeIt is so out of character for him to do something like this on purpose,â he says, âoeMy inclination is to believe he made an honest mistake.â

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @06:25PM (#28575711)
    I'm giving an open (public, anybody can attend) colloquium in a couple of months reviewing aerospace applications of a particular material. What I'm planning to present is all in the public domain, referenceable, etc. The colloquium organizer said I'd have to be sure I reviewed applicable ITAR restrictions. This ruling makes me concerned that if I say something like, "published results suggest that material X would be very helpful in solving problem Y in hypersonic flight", somebody in a suit and shades will get up from the back of the room and invite me to come with him for a friendly debriefing. Is it possible to be in violation of ITAR simply by mentioning a public result and suggesting its utility in a known aerospace problem?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @06:29PM (#28575733)

    ITAR restricted materials are basically equivalent to what you should be able to access at a reasonably well stocked public library. Its a bogus restriction enacted by Congress to make themselves feel better. Any US citizen can access it, and is somehow supposed to know that they can't share with them damn "furriners".

  • by Dr. Zowie (109983) <slashdot@defor e s t . o rg> on Friday July 03, 2009 @06:43PM (#28575813)

    Since he seems to have been convicted under the EAR, which is a set of regulations having to do with rendering technical aid to foreigners, and not the ITAR, which is a set of regulations about exporting actual objects (such as munitions or rocket-control thingies), there is very close parsing required of the law to figure out what is Right or not.

    After all, the material he distributed wasn't classified, and in principle the 1st Amendment to the U.S. constitution allows you to say whatever you want to whomever you want (provided that you aren't directly inciting a crime, or lying, or distributing classified information). It's especially interesting because most violations of the EAR never get to trial -- they are generally settled by defense contractors who are eager to make good so that the flow of federal dollars doesn't dry up -- so this is likely to be a strong legal precedent. In this case, as in so many, my guess is that he had the standard language in his federal contract -- essentially "I agree to abide by ITAR and EAR" -- so that the regulations can be enforced via contract law even if the ITAR and EAR are eventually found to be unconstitutional if applied to general citizens.

    The most scary situation involving EAR/ITRAR is that I know of no legal precedent at all for the EAR in the case of a gifted, privately funded enthusiast just screwing around -- but it applies to many things that even hobbyists do now. If you take an interest in (say) cheap image stabilization systems or inertial guidance of vehicles, and share your work with some of your friends down at the rocket club (who happen to be exchange students from the Pacific Rim), the regulations say that you are liable for millions of dollars in fines and many years of jail time -- even though those technologies are well within the range of gifted college students today (and affordable for an enthusiast to tinker with). I have no idea what the outcome of such a case would be -- only that the legal bills would be immense and the hypothetical hobbyist's life would be put on hold for years, if the Feds decided to take an interest.

  • Re:Guilty. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dravik (699631) on Friday July 03, 2009 @06:58PM (#28575915)
    It is not necessarily classified. He got popped for export restrictions. What he was working on fell under the "un-classified but sensitive" category. The technology had possible military applications and thus was banned from export from the United States. He was warned by the export control officer of the university not to take the information out of the US.
  • Re:Guilty. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Lars T. (470328) <Lars DOT Traeger AT googlemail DOT com> on Friday July 03, 2009 @07:07PM (#28575957) Journal
    Maybe, just maybe, this case doesn't show that Roth is a traitor, but that the military is full of idiots who don't take their jobs serious.
  • Damages ? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @07:09PM (#28575983)

    This story doesn't even state that there IS any 'classified' or secret information to disseminate. It doesn't say he gave foreign nationals 'Restricted' information, just that he possessed it when he went overseas. Does this mean that if he merely remembered his research, he should not be allowed to leave the country ? Realise that ITAR restricted information is pretty broad. Things like how a GPS or compass works, electronics, control systems, Steel formulas, almost any industrial process can be used for building arms. This all smells like fertilizer. ANFO.

  • Re:Lying or stupid? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PhxBlue (562201) on Friday July 03, 2009 @07:12PM (#28576001) Homepage Journal

    The punishment doesn't strike me as particularly useful either. Seems too severe, especially when considering that he likely didn't mean to hurt the US.

    Drunken drivers don't mean to kill people, but they do. If you can't be bothered to think through possible consequences before you do something, then you get to endure those consequences later.

    Me, I'd rather not see Department of Defense employees not helping Iran and China with their own UAS programs if it's all the same.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @07:57PM (#28576281)
    Seconded...ITAR regulations make it easier for a Canadian gun buyer to get a Chinese M4 rifle copy than a USA made one (not to mention the 50% off "Made in China" discount). These are not super secret, we have manufacturers that make them here, and importers who will gladly bring in products made to good spec from Chinese gun makers. Heck, a machinist with a CNC machine and a diagram could crank them out fairly easily. We're a small market compared to the domestic one for US manufacturers so we have little voice, but I can still see the irony and question the logic.
  • Re:Not long enough (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Friday July 03, 2009 @08:06PM (#28576337)

    Even the " prohibited from sharing sensitive data with foreign nationals" condition is a fluff, since a foreign nation can simply pay a US citizen to get the data.

    That US citizen would then be subject to the same legal sanctions the Professor got under the US laws prohibiting export of this information.

    That's actually the problem with a lot of our interaction in the "global economy". Take medical transcription, for example ... a lot of that is being outsourced to India. And when it gets stolen by some Indian bastard trying to make a quick buck, there's absolutely nothing our government can do. The thief is not subject to United States law. Consequently, there's no deterrent effect whatsoever when it comes to ripping off confidential data from our government or our citizens, and that's the reason the professor was prohibited from using foreign nationals on his project. Did he intend to act in a treasonous or near-treasonous manner? Perhaps not. But it's damned hard to argue that he didn't know better.

  • Re:Why stop there.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @08:14PM (#28576393)

    I literally had 8 hours of reading/signing documents and had to sign at least 3 that told me explicitly who I could and could not talk to about what I was doing. Each was read to me after I read it myself, and they went line by line to make sure I understood it.

    You know, this country would be in a hell of a lot better shape today if this were required of all bankers, insurance companies,housing contractors and a lot of others. This crap about getting a loan and being expected to sign your name thirty times in twenty minutes is shit. It's just bunch of handwaving like, "This is just a formality in case a small meteorite hits you and pierces your heart" or "It's just a requirement of the federal government and we can't close until you sign it". Then they point out about ten numbers on the summary page and you hope everything is fine.

    I had a friend who once had a bunch of tools stolen out of his truck. When he took his claim to his auto insurance, he was told, "Oh, you're a carpenter. Since these were the tools of your trade, they're not covered. They would have been had you been an accountant."

    My friend went out and got another insurance guy. He started off by telling the guy, "I want every thing I own covered. Never mind the price -- cover everything. Just know that you are never, EVER to tell me something isn't covered. If you do, I will come after you personally and beat the living holy shit out of you and I'm big enough to do it thoroughly and well."

  • Re:Not long enough (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mpe (36238) on Friday July 03, 2009 @08:33PM (#28576537)
    Tad excessive? You've never heard of the Rosenbergs, I take it. What country are you from?

    Pity they didn't use the same approach with Jonathan Pollard.
  • Re:Why stop there.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DustyShadow (691635) on Friday July 03, 2009 @08:35PM (#28576553) Homepage

    My experience with US security clearance was exactly as you describe. I literally had 8 hours of reading/signing documents and had to sign at least 3 that told me explicitly who I could and could not talk to about what I was doing. Each was read to me after I read it myself, and they went line by line to make sure I understood it. Roth is completely full of crap if he claims he didn't know. The process left me with the distinct impression that if I even had a hint that I shouldn't be talking about it or wasn't sure, I should keep my big mouth shut. The funny part is, I'm not sure I actually saw anything classified during my stint. Not that I'm going to be talking about any of it, because I'm just not sure, but still. Doubly funny was debriefing, that also took 8 hours where they went over everything again that I had gone through when I received clearance in the first place.

    I used to have a top secret clearance and my experience was nothing close to yours. I simply had to take an oath and sign a one page document. My debriefing was even shorter. In fact, now that I think about it, my oath was taken when my secret clearance was granted. I did nothing further when my T/S went through.

    My point is simply that this guy may have had an experience similar to mine and from the summary, (unless I skimmed too fast) it doesn't sound like he even had a clearance. This is an ITAR issue. Which by the way, seemed to be taken way more seriously at my company because people actually get thrown in prison for violating it when those violations are simply negligent. Negligent classified information violations were normally punished with a nasty gram email and a "don't do that again!" letter.

  • Re:Lying or stupid? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Artifakt (700173) on Friday July 03, 2009 @09:11PM (#28576747)

    It does pose an occasional hardship. I've applied at places that were totally clueless before. When your interviewer asks if you've ever had any management experience and you tell him you were a company commander, and he gets this blank look and you have to explain how you supervised and directed 90 or so people and had legal responsibility for over 1 billion dollars of equipment, and he still doesn't really see how that's management, and he says "But did you ever have to make any life or death decisions?", you don't direct him to an FSO or anybody else over the classified bits, you just leave, because if you put this clown in touch with anybody, he will screw you up somehow. I've bailed on four or five job interviews because the guy asking the questions had no idea that anybody really had a classified background, in businesses where he damned well should have. Never tried to get any of them fired, nor sued the companies involved, but maybe someone should have done that too. And no, I don't think these were people playing dumb to check my ethics, I think they were just dumb and not very ethical themselves, and some of them had probably had as many briefings and signings as professor Roth.

  • Re:Guilty. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Reservoir Penguin (611789) on Friday July 03, 2009 @11:28PM (#28577415)
    For a second I though you were describing the US. What countries did Iran use it's military to take over exactly? On the other hand Iran did see US and NATO take over a country it borders in the east and just two years later the same warmongers took over a country it borders in the west. And then they try to incite a figging "Orange" Revolution. I'd be worried and developing nuclear weapons like mad.
  • Re:Guilty. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by greyhueofdoubt (1159527) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @01:01AM (#28577863) Homepage Journal

    In essence what you exported there was your expertise in leading the foreign national to that source of information.

    I'd like to add to this, because many people here on /. who don't have experience in these areas often ask, "Why is it illegal for a member of the military/Boeing employee/Raytheon employee/etc to say publicly what can already be found easily on wikipedia or other sources?"

    The answer is: Because it verifies facts. An article by AP about the air force's new musical ice-cream truck UAV could only be written based on publicly-available facts or deduction. Once a member of the Air Force confirms to the press or anyone else that yes, we have a new ice-cream UAV and it is delicious, the subject is confirmed. Every member of the DoD, DoD contractors, and DoD researchers is like a walking snopes.com in that everything they say is scrutinized and accepted as the acting ultimate authority on the subject.

    Here's a real world example based on my own experiences. There are maps online of a certain base in Iraq that give very detailed, very accurate information. You can find it, but I won't tell you which one it is. OK. But when we do our predeployment briefing to that base, and which uses *that map*, and which is given by Intel and is secret/noforn- ALL cell phones go away, all the doors are closed, and all the window blinds are closed. The fact that we are using that map as a fact... Makes that map a *Fact*. Capital "F".

    See?

    I realize that's at odds with much of what slashdottery stands for, but when lives are on the line secrecy matters. It may seem silly but it matters enough to people in the loop (like me...) to keep certain things under wraps.

    Another real-world example: My base public relations officer called me in Iraq (from the U.S.) to talk to me about my blog (which was about my deployment). He cautioned me, in no uncertain terms, to be "very, very careful what I include in my essays." And this was after I took pains to change names, places, times, patterns, etc so that my account could easily be from any shitty place* in the world if you didn't personally know where I was.

    -b

    *No offense Iraq, it was just the weather. No really.

  • Re:Guilty. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BitZtream (692029) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @02:29AM (#28578235)

    So true. PhDs are granted because you were someones bitch for 4+ years, nothing more. If anything one could argue that PhDs are given only to idiots who stay and deal with it rather than having the common sense to leave, get a job, and make twice as much than you will when you get out.

    Okay, so if you are going into academia you're going to have to get a PhD since they have to self perpetuate.

    And yes, I know a little about PhD programs. My family has 2 PhDs and my wife is a real doctor.

  • by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @03:06AM (#28578361) Journal

    PhDs aren't granted for common sense.

    But there should be a way to take them back if the holder demonstrates remarkable stupidity.

  • Re:Why stop there.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sheen (1180801) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @03:37AM (#28578479)
    I had top secret aswell ( worked/served at NATO base), i just signed, didnt swear, didnt do anything, i discovered that allot of the sensitive data was available on google tho ( googled specs and bases when i was bored, from time to time). I am not american tho, but i had top secret in the US military system ( among most other NATO military systems). I remember the difference between nice to know and need to know got explained a few times tho, but that was the germans.

All constants are variables.

Working...