A Sunshine Week mystery shrouds the identity of a Chinese national who had planned to attend a classified March 12-14 meeting at NASA's Langley Research Center even though doing so would have violated U.S. law, according to Rep. Frank Wolf.
NASA and other federal officials refused to identify the Chinese national or his governmental affiliation. They declined to say whether disclosure of the person's name would harm U.S. national security, which is an allowable exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of the importance of transparency and accountability in government, especially with regard to the Freedom of Information Act. The week coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment and the nation's fourth president.
Cyber national security experts say Chinese espionage against U.S. government facilities and corporations in the private sector has significantly increased in recent years.
Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese cyber espionage is a major national security threat, noting that "it's hard to overemphasize its significance. "These capabilities put all sectors of our country at risk--from government and private networks to critical infrastructures."
NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden acknowledged last week that the anonymous Chinese national simply withdrew from the conference after there was a congressional outcry. Bolden simply stated the Chinese principal "no longer plans to attend."
Bolden admitted the change of plans in a March 7 letter to Wolf, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget.
Wolf said the pending Chinese visit to a NASA site violated a 2011 Defense Department appropriations authorization bill and the China Sanctions Act.
NASA spokesman Allard Buetel refused to identify the Chinese official when asked by The Washington Examiner. He referred the newspaper to the multi-national organization, the Committee on Earth Orbiting Satellites, that would be meeting at Langley.
It was not clear why Buetel did so, since NASA is a member of the CEOS Permanent Secretariat, which runs the organization and chairs its most important arm, the Strategic Implementation Team. It is the SIT that is meeting this week at NASA's Langley facility in Hampton, VA.
Kerry Sawyer, CEOS's executive officer also refused to identify the Chinese national. Sawyer is a senior executive at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey, another U.S. agency, co-chair CEOS's executive office.
In an email to The Washington Examiner, Sawyer declined to identify the Chinese national, stating, "for me, the meeting has already started and my attentions are therefore focused on my key role in the meeting."
Two high-ranking officials from the Peoples Republic of China serve as full voting principals of CEOS, including Fu Xiang Xu of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, and Zhang Guocheng of the National Remote Sensing Center of China.
The academy is a Beijing-based space development research center for the Chinese government. Its English-language web site describes it as the "main development base for space technology and products in China and the most powerful backbone strength for China's space endeavor."
The National Remote Sensing Center, also in Beijing, is a space center established by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology with a mission of "fostering the strategic new industry in remote sensing, geographic information system and navigation and positioning," according to its English-language site.
Sawyer said the participant was neither Fu nor Zhang.
Earlier this week, White House national security advisor Thomas Donilon strongly to criticized Chinese business espionage, particular cypberthefts.
Mandiant, a private sector cyber security organization, last month released a comprehensive report on widespread Chinese military spying on U.S. government agencies and American businesses.
Wolf told The Washington Examiner that he "is pleased that no Chinese government officials will be attending. NASA nonetheless violated current law by requiring an advance 14-day certification as provided to Congress anytime a Chinese official visits a NASA facility."
NASA Inspector General Paul Martin testifies before Wolf's subcommittee today.
Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.