Case Study: The United States Vs Charles Lieber

photo courtesy: author

This case study presents the United States’ ongoing institutional campaign to respond to the perceived threat of China’s pursuit of its technical independency. From the perspective of the national security of the United States, its campaign may be perceived as a counter-intelligence program, while the Chinese government deems these steps as a strategic threat to its technological leap.


On January 28th, 2020 Prof. Charles Lieber, the Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department was arrested along with two other Chinese nationals in three separate China related cases (DOJ, January 2020). Lieber was arrested for making false statements to federal authorities, telling investigators that he was never asked to participate in China’s Thousand Talent Program. On June 9th, 2020, Dr. Lieber was indicted by a United States District court on two counts of making false statements (18 U.S.C. § 1001):

1. January 10, 2019: for knowingly and willfully making “a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement and representation in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.”

2. April 24, 2020: Lieber caused Harvard University to tell the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) that he “was not and has never been a participant in” China’s Thousand Talents Program.

Charles Lieber isn’t the first US scientist to be involved in the ongoing political tensions between the United States and China’s Thousand Talent Program. During the same year, Turab Lookman, a former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Albuquerque (DOJ, January 2020) to a charge of “making a false statement to a government investigator about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Program.”

Lookman had previously been indicted on three counts of making false statements to the federal government. On one count he admitted that he had lied to a counterintelligence officer. As with the case against Prof. Charles Lieber, Lookman had made a false statement by answering “no” to the question whether he had “been recruited by, applied for, and been accepted for participation in the Thousand Talents Program for monetary compensation.”

In both cases; Lieber, a pioneer in nanotechnology, and Lookman, a computational physicist had accepted monetary compensation and benefits from a Chinese recruitment program without disclosing the fact to the government of the United States. Although being associated with the Thousand Talent Program isn’t considered illegal, Lookman pled guilty by failing to disclose the information. Prof. Charles Lieber, on the other hand, while continuing his tenure at Harvard University, had applied for funding from the US Department of Defense, which required him to provide information on being funded by other governments or universities.

On Sept. 11, 2020, Turab Lookman was sentenced to “five years of probation and a $75,000 fine for providing a false statement to the Department of Energy.” Lookman will remain in New Mexico for the term of his probation. As for Charles Lieber, he has maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty on all of the charges throughout the proceedings. He is set to go to trial after his attorney eliminated the possibility of a plea.


It is of consequence that with the rise of globalization, and factors such as the “decline in customer and employee loyalty,” continued improvements in information flows, and keeping trade secrets has become harder to protect for the United States. Hediah Nesheri (2004) further argues that, “IP inventions and innovations have been the main engine of economic growth.” Additionally, there are claims that the largest transfer of wealth is occurring in modern times from the west to the east. To address these concerns, in 1996, the United States Congress passed the Economic Espionage Act (EEA). Despite its passage twenty five years ago, “there’s so much trade thievery that the United States finds itself in the middle of an epidemic of economic espionage (Reed, 2016).”

In 2019, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs’ released a report which focused on threats to US research enterprise from China’s talent recruitment plans. The report argues that US taxpayers funded research has contributed to China’s global rise over the past few decades. In order to achieve its aim in becoming the world leader in science and technology, China is recruiting top scientists and experts from around the world to advance its “national security interests.”

In contrast, Hannah and Allen (2018), amongst other academics contend that the Chinese central government initiated the Thousand Talents Plan to alleviate brain drain. A brain drain, considered as the “exodus of talented and educated people out of a given society” (Baldwin, 1970), has negatively impacted a diverse range of communities across the world, particularly “non-western nations since the end of the Second World War.” These areas have often sent students abroad to learn from more technologically advanced nations, leading to permanent migration of many top minds.

Apparently, the People’s Republic of China has been focusing on this type of outflow since the opening up of the country and the implementation of various economic reforms since the 1970’s. In order to curb the outflow of this precious resource, in 2008, the government unveiled its “Recruitment Program of Global Experts,” also referred to as the “Thousand Talents Plan.” The aim of this program was to “reverse 30 years of brain drain,” and to dramatically boost the human capital of the nation “through inbound migration (Hanna; Allen, 2018).”

In late 2010, the government initiated its Recruitment Program for Young Professionals or the Thousand Youth Talents Scheme (TYTS), which specifically targets young elite Chinese scientists overseas. Despite the challenges of reorienting themselves in a new place, young scientists continue to make “significant contributions to the development of their affiliated institutions.” Most importantly, there are Chinese academics who maintain that the efforts of these returned experts and scientists have contributed to the internationalization of Chinese higher education and that they are a powerful driving force for enhancing “knowledge exchange and global connectivity (Li, Yang et al, 2018).”

For scholars and experts of foreign origin, the pay and various remunerations have assisted greatly in their recruitment. The theory of MICE (Money, Ideology, Compromise/ Coercion and Ego), which assists in the recruitment of agents, may also be (speculatively) applied in the case of Prof. Lieber and other American experts attracted to work for foreign governments (whether allies or foes). Money, or financial gain, argued to be the easiest motivator may have provided some allurement, since Lieber was receiving a $50,000 monthly salary, $150,000 in annual living expenses and more than $1.5 million to establish a second laboratory in Wuhan; all from participating in the Thousand Talent Program.

The last word in the MICE framework stands for Ego (or Excitement), which could also be a prevalent driver in this case. If Dr. Lieber (and other recruits) are to be considered as “agents” then, after attaining confidence and prestige these experts might commit mistakes or “slip up,” eventually alerting authorities in their home countries.

Consequently, Prof. Lieber’s ‘Preliminary Statement’ filed on 9/30/20 at the United States District of Massachusetts, (Boston), argues: “the case against Professor Charles Lieber is a product of the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ’s”) China Initiative Task Force. The government trumpeted Professor Lieber’s case in numerous interviews and statements concerning the China Initiative, noting observations from the Intelligence Community about conduct that DOJ sought to deter. Yet, in discovery, the government failed to produce any materials concerning the China Initiative, which are critical to prove that Dr. Lieber’s conduct was not criminal. The Court should order the government to produce these materials.”


I have used the MICE Framework for the analysis of Professor Lieber’s intentions and psychological motivations, instead of RASCLS, an alternative framework for agent recruitment proposed by Dr. Robert Cialdini in 1984. I came upon his work while reading a paper by Randy Burkett after the submission of this case study for a class. Burkett’s paper asserts that RASCLS gives more nuance and perspective to the older MICE framework, which he concludes has “outlived its usefulness."

RASCLS, the work of Dr. Robert Cialdini gives six influence factors: reciprocation, authority, scarcity, commitment (and consistency), liking, and social proof — these “could be applied to motivate potential agents to agree to spy and to improve the productivity of existing agents.”


  • Baldwin James. “Brain Drain or Overflow?” Foreign Affairs. 1970.
  • Burkett Randy. “Rethinking an Old Approach An Alternative Framework for Agent Recruitment: From MICE to RASCLS.” Studies in Intelligence. Vol. 57, №1 (Extracts, March 2013).
  • Caldini, Robert.Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.William Morrow And Company, New York. 1984.
  • Kim, Hanna; Ryan Michael Allen. “Localizing cures for China’s brain drain ills.” International Journal of Comparative Education and Development; Bingley Vol. 20, Iss. 1, (2018): 16–32.
  • Last, T.S., Albuquerque Journal. “Probation for former LANL scientist in lying during investigation.” September, 2020.
  • Li, Yang et al. “Translating transnational capital into professional development: a study of China’s Thousand Youth Talents Scheme scholars.” Asia Pacific Education Review (2018) 19:229–239. April, 2018.
  • Nair. Mira, Wang. Andy. “ As Scientists Rally to His Defense, Lieber Rules Out Plea Deal, Plans To Stand Trial.” Harvard Crimson. March 2, 2021.
  • Nature. “Harvard chemistry chief’s arrest over China links shocks researchers.” February, 2020.
  • Nesheri, Hediah: Economic Espionage and Industrial Spying, Cambridge, 2004
  • Reid, Melanie, “A Comparative Approach to Economic Espionage: Is Any Nation Effectively Dealing with this Global Threat?, University of Miami Law Review Vol. 70, 2016 pp. 757–829
  • United States District Court, District of Massachusetts, Case 1:20-cr-10111-RWZ Document 56 Filed 09/30/20. “United States of America Vs Charles Lieber.”
  • United States Department of Justice. “Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals Charged in Three Separate China Related Cases.” Tuesday, January 28, 2020
  • United States Department of Justice. “Former scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory pleads guilty in federal court to making false statement about involvement with Chinese government technology program.” Friday, January 24, 2020
  • United States Department of Justice. “Former Employee At Los Alamos National Laboratory Sentenced To Probation For Making False Statements About Being Employed By China.” September 15, 2020.
  • United States District Court. Indictment. “United States of America vs Charles Lieber.” June, 9th, 2020.
  • United States Senate: PERMANENT SUBCOMMITTEE ON INVESTIGATIONS Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Staff Report.” Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans.” 2019.

writes on international affairs | cyber • diplomacy • intelligence studies • statecraft • a private citizen • cosmopolitan • dedicated biryani fan •

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