A physics professor at Caltech says that an Israeli scientist at the school shared secrets from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the school with a top Israeli government rocket scientist in violation of federal law, but that when she reported the matter to Caltech authorities, she was punished for the disclosure. Sandra Troian is suing Caltech for her mistreatment.
The case is big news in southern California, and was covered late this week here and here, mostly with the Israel angle way down in the story. Though the Pasadena Star-News says, “Caltech professor claims Israeli spy infiltrated JPL.” While KCAL TV quotes Troian:
Right under [CalTech’s] nose is possible espionage.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday morning, Troian says she repeatedly brought her concerns to Caltech in 2010, but the school did nothing. Then the FBI approached her about the matter, and she talked to two agents about violations of ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations; and that’s what set Caltech off. It’s not clear from the lawsuit or coverage if the FBI did anything about the case. The alleged spy is now back in Israel, at the country’s leading institute of technology.
You can read the lawsuit here. Some excerpts. Notice the use of a computer virus to hijack files:
Dr. Troian is, and at all relevant times was, employed as a tenured Full Professor at Caltech’s principal place of business in Pasadena..
Dr. Troian is also a contractor and holds research privileges at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (“JPL”), which is a federally-funded research and development facility managed by Caltech on behalf of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”)….
In March 2010, Dr. Troian became Principal Investigator (“PI”) on an export controlled project at JPL known as the Electrospray Thruster Array Technology Feasibility Study Project (“Electrospray Project”). The goal of the Electrospray Project was to design a new type of space micropropulsion system.
Dr. Troian hired Dr. Amir Gat to work with her on the Electrospray Project as a postdoctoral research scholar in March of 2010. Dr. Gat is an Israeli foreign national, who, at the time, had recently
earned his Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (“ITT”)….
On May 25, 2010, a virus attacked Dr. Troian’s computer network at Caltech, causing hundreds of project files to be uploaded in rapid succession to an unknown IP address outside of Caltech and causing Caltech to disable Dr. Troian’s network for several days. Dr. Troian traced the virus that caused the network problems to Dr. Gat’s computer, and notified Caltech officials of this fact…
On May 28, 2010, Dr. Gat admitted to Dr. Troian that he had been sharing details of the Electrospray Project with Dr. Daniel Weihs, his Ph.D. advisor at ITT in Israel, without proper U.S. government approval. Dr. Gat refused to disclose to Dr. Troian the substance or extent of his transfer of information. ..Dr. Weihs was a member of Israel’s National Steering Committee for Space Infrastructure of the Ministry of Science, Chair of Israel’s National Committee for Space Research, and Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
On June 3, 2010, Dr. Troian found Dr. Gat wandering alone, unauthorized, in one of her access-restricted experimental laboratories. Dr. Gat explained that Dr. Weihs had recommended that he “look around” to see what other aerospace projects were ongoing at Caltech in collaboration with JPL. Dr. Gat said that he was hoping that the Israel Institute of Technology would hire him in the future, after he left the United States and returned to Israel…
Today Gat is back at the Technion.
To Dr. Troian’s knowledge, Caltech did not investigate Dr. Gat or otherwise take action in response to Dr. Troian’s or other JPL supervisors’ complaints of Dr. Gat’s…violations….
Morteza Gharib, the Caltech vice provost for research, told Dr. Troian “It’s not my business.” Weihs was Morteza’s “best friend,” he said; and he then hired Gat at his own lab.
Here come the feds.
On June 28, 2012, Kelly M. Sullivan and David Tsang, FBI agents with the Los Angeles County Counterintelligence Division, approached Dr. Troian and told her that there had been several security breaches at JPL. They told her that Dr. Gat was a focus of a larger investigation involving ITAR violations and possibly espionage, and asked her for information pertaining to his activities at JPL and Caltech…
Dr. Troian responded to all of the FBI agents’ questions truthfully. She responded that she believed Dr. Gat had, in fact, violated federal export control laws while at Caltech. The agents asked Dr. Troian if she had ever reported Dr. Gat and to whom, and she replied that she had repeatedly voiced her concerns to Caltech officials, including Drs. Gharib and [Ares] Rosakis, and to JPL supervisors, but Caltech had failed to investigate Dr. Gat…
The agents urged Dr. Troian to execute an affidavit containing this information about Drs. Gat, Rosakis, and Gharib. Dr. Troian voiced her fear of retaliation by Caltech if she were to execute an affidavit, and declined to do so…
She feared retaliation if she signed anything, she says. But after that, Gharib and Rosakis warned Troian that her behavior was becoming “dangerous” for Caltech, she alleges. And the retaliation began. It included harassment and an accusation that she had misappropriated a colleague’s research. She is suing in part for compensation for suffering:
Caltech’s four years of retaliation and harassment have also caused Dr. Troian severe anxiety, stress, sadness and depression, sleep disturbances and other
Based on Dr. Troian’s disclosures of Dr. Gat’s apparent illegal activity, Caltech engaged in a campaign of retaliation against Dr. Troian in an effort to drive her out of Caltech and ruin her career. The retaliation included, inter alia, placing multiple false letters of discipline in her file; threatening to bar her from hiring future postdoctorate students; falsely accusing her of research misconduct; refusing to follow the Handbook’s procedure for investigating research misconduct and instituting sham proceedings that violated her rights as a faculty member; issuing false findings of wrongdoing against her and imposing discipline against her; falsely accusing her of misappropriating lab equipment; thwarting her participation in campus committees, events, and lectures; denying her over a million dollars in grant funds; causing her to waste significant time and money to fight Caltech’s baseless allegations against her; and generally intimidating her and threatening her employment at Caltech.