A longtime scientist for a U.S. laboratory in New Mexico pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that he lied about contacts he had with a state-run program in China that seeks to draw foreign-educated talent.
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Turab Lookman, who lives in Santa Fe and until recently worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory — tasked with securing the nation's nuclear stockpile, conducting research and reducing weapons threats — entered the plea to charges of making false statements during a federal detention hearing in Albuquerque.
A judge decided that Lookman could be released while he awaits trial on a $50,000 secured bond, despite a federal prosecutor's argument that he posed a potential security threat if he tried to flee the country.
"If he fled, it would quite frankly be a national security disaster," said George Kraehe, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico.
Authorities said Lookman came under scrutiny after he told a co-worker that he had citizenship in four difference countries — including India, where he was born. He also had been asked in a 2017 security-clearance questionnaire and later by federal officials if any foreign nationals had offered him a job or if he had applied for one. He falsely answered to all questions that he had not, authorities said.
In one instance, a counterintelligence officer for the lab asked Lookman if he had applied for the China Thousand Talents Program, according to an indictment.
The questionnaire that Lookman had filled out in 2017 must be filled out every five years, and an FBI agent said in court that he likely had filled it out at least once before in 2012.
Prosecutors have described Thousand Talents as a program established by China to recruit people with access to and knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property. For years, it was known as one of many of the country's state initiatives aimed at reversing a decades-long China brain drain.
Lookman's attorney, Paul Linnenburger, said Kraehe had failed to prove that his client had accessed or downloaded any high-level security information before his job was terminated at the laboratory. He also added that while Lookman had top-security clearance, most of his work and research over the years had been made public.
"We're hearing a lot of worse-case scenarios without anything to support it," Linnenburger said.
Lookman will be required to wear electronic monitoring device and his travel ahead of the trial will be restricted to the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas.
He was arrested last Thursday at his home in Santa Fe, where an FBI agent testified she had seized U.S. and United Kingdom passports, a laptop, hard drive and "Chinese collaborative communication" which she did not describe in court.
The agent said that certain parts of the investigation into Lookman remain classified.
She said Lookman, who is 67, moved from India to Britain with his family when he was 13. He then moved to Canada as a young adult after finishing school, and then came to the United States. He began working for Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1999, according to the lab's website. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2008.
The prosecutor said Lookman has financial accounts in all four countries, and that he had also lied about having citizenship in each of them.
Lookman's attorney said there was no proof presented in court that he had lied about his citizenship as part of his employment in Los Alamos.
The once-secret city in the mountains of northern New Mexico is where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago as part of the Manhattan Project.
Lookman, a computational physics expert, received at least two awards while working at Los Alamos and co-authored two books, according to the lab's website. He faces a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.
Earlier this year, a former research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was sentenced to time already served in a Florida lockup for working for the U.S. agency and two China programs, one of which was Thousand Talents.
Chunzai Wang's sentence came after he pleaded guilty to a charge of accepting a salary from another source while working for the U.S. agency.