In the pre-dawn hours on the frigid ten-degree morning of January 28, 2020, an FBI surveillance team sat outside 27 Hayes Avenue in tony Lexington, Massachusetts, watching, waiting, until lights flicked on inside around 5:45 a.m.—a signal that their target, the world’s most renowned nanoscientist, Harvard Chemistry Department Chair Charles Lieber, was on the move.
Minutes later a nondescript 60-year-old white guy dressed in gray cargo pants and a Carhartt hoodie emerged from the leafy suburban house and jumped behind the wheel of a minivan, oblivious to the unmarked SUV filled with plainclothes G-men that eased behind him as he steered toward Route 2, a speed-limit pursuit transmitted back to dozens of FBI agents who had assembled at 3:30 am for a strategy briefing and had been waiting to kick in doors since.
“Once we determined that he was heading toward Cambridge,” Boston FBI Special Agent Kara Spice would later explain in court testimony, “we decided we would go to Harvard University to arrest him.”
An operation like this—dozens of agents from FBI, HSI, IRS, a sealed federal indictment, university cops at the ready to unlock doors to affect a stealth entry into the building that houses the Chemistry Department at arguably the most prestigious center for academic scientific research in the world – is wildly unusual. Guys like the ones the FBI was hunting this cold morning usually get a target letter, a polite request from the U.S. Attorney’s Office sent to a white-shoe law firm asking when it might be convenient for a visit to the federal courthouse to answer a few questions.
But not this day. And not this suspect.
A week before Lieber’s arrest, on Jan. 22, 2020, the Department of Defense now says, a passenger on an American Airlines flight was quarantined after showing COVID-19 symptoms at LAX. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began screening passengers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. Wuhan locked down its citizens.
Federal investigators had learned that Lieber—who worked on virus research as part of his military sponsored grant work—had been spending a lot of time in Wuhan, trips that he hid from Harvard and lied about to the Department of Defense for years and they wanted to grill him about that travel.
They would soon learn that when he returned to Boston from China, Lieber smuggled home “between $10,000 and $20,000 in cash on each visit,” prosecutors would prove, money doled out by the Chinese “in $100 bills” that Lieber confessed he “enclosed in brown paper packages,” before hiding the stash in his checked luggage. The total, prosecutors said, was “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Lieber also confessed to maintaining a secret Chinese bank account, which he admitted in an interview to the FBI after his arrest “was pretty damning,” and “obviously illegal.”
Around 6:15 a.m. on that January morning the surveillance team tailing Lieber alerted their FBI counterparts that the professor had arrived at his Harvard University office. Minutes later, four FBI agents and two Harvard University detectives banged on the door of the school’s Chemistry Department Chair: “Charles Lieber. FBI! We have a warrant for your arrest.”
Lieber, weakened by cancer, didn’t put up a fight as he was handcuffed and bundled into a waiting FBI vehicle for the quick drive to the Harvard University Police Department building where he was formally booked. “Dr. Lieber was taken by surprise,” the professor’s attorney Marc Mukasey later told U.S. District Court Justice Rya Zobel in a Massachusetts federal courtroom. “This is the chairman of a department of Harvard being handcuffed behind his back in his office. Suffice to say it was startling.”
As the man his lawyers call “indisputably a genius,” repeatedly referred to as “among the most prominent scientists in the world,” a “candidate for a Nobel Prize year in and year out,” was fingerprinted and mug-shot, his pockets emptied of $12 in cash, the $2 million home in Lexington he left earlier that morning was besieged by federal agents.
The agents served Lieber’s wife Jennifer Karas—whom he met as they pursued scientific postdoc degrees at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1990—with a copy of a search warrant and went to work collecting scientific awards, electronic devices, and anything related to his research, “a majority,” of which, the government says, was paid for by $15 million in Pentagon-sponsored grants, and included the use of virus samples maintained by USAAMRID – the U.S. Army Medical Research of Infectious Diseases at Fort Dietrick.
Investigators had been watching Lieber for years by then, suspicious that he was on the take, pocketing “additional and overlapping funding for his DoD projects from foreign sources,” what federal prosecutors in Boston call “a problematic form of double-dipping.”
But Lieber had not only been double dipping; prosecutors would also later prove that he had agreed to work for the Chinese government as a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology, where he was the director at $1.5 million research center called “the WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory,” as a member of the CCP’s controversial Thousand Talents Plan, which U.S. counterterrorism official have repeatedly described as an elaborate espionage operation and one of the greatest threats to American national security.
Lieber’s partnership with a lab in Wuhan, and the increasingly viable possibility that a lab error led to release of the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, has sparked what his attorneys call “shocking and unspeakable harassment,” connected with speculative allegations that whatever research he was conducting here could be related to “causing the Coronavirus outbreak.” (Lieber has steadfastly denied the allegation, which prosecutors have never alleged in his case.)
But with Lieber’s sentencing hearing slated to take place in a Boston federal courtroom on Wednesday (April 26) two years after a jury convicted him of two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making and subscribing a false income tax return and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts with the Internal Revenue Service, questions remain about why a very smart man “chronically lied,” as prosecutors point out, “about his ties to WUT and the TTP.”
What was he so desperate to hide that prompted him to embark on what prosecutors call “a years-long scheme to further his career through lies and deceit, while also lining his pockets courtesy of the Chinese government?”
What was he lying about?
Little is known about exactly what the so-called “WUT-Harvard” lab was researching, and Harvard—which fired Lieber immediately after his arrest—insists school administrators knew nothing about it.
FBI Director Christopher Wray now says the bureau’s investigation has determined the deadly COVID outbreak can probably be traced back to a lab in Wuhan, and not a wet market, telling Fox News, “the FBI for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.” The FBI’s intelligence remains classified, but a Department of Energy report released in March also points to the worldwide pandemic being started by a release from the lab.
China’s spying operations targeting academics at Ivy League colleges conducting classified and sensitive research is a grave concern for counterterrorism officials. On the same day Lieber was arrested, the Department of Justice announced it had issued an arrest warrant for a Boston researcher, Yanqing Ye, then 29, a Chinese national and lieutenant in the CCP’s Peoples Liberation Army.
Ye had infiltrated academic circles, according to a federal indictment, to “work as a PLA Lieutenant completing numerous assignments such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites, and sending U.S. documents and information to China.” She fled back to China and remains at large.
A second Chinese national, Zaosong Zheng, whose student visa to work at a Harvard-affiliated nanotechnology lab had been sponsored by the university, was indicted days after Lieber’s arrest on charges that he was caught smuggling “21 vials of biological research,” bundled in socks hidden in his checked back for a flight to China. He later pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement to a federal officer, was sentenced to time served, and deported back to China.
It remains unclear if Lieber sponsored those lab assistants, but the government pointed out in its sentencing memo that Lieber, “without consulting anyone at Harvard, committed Harvard to a formal academic exchange program with WUT, enabling WUT students to travel to Harvard to work in Lieber’s lab, including on U.S. government-funded projects. Lieber supervised WUT students both in China and at his Harvard lab.”
And much of Lieber’s DoD sponsored research was directly related to biowarfare, the weaponization of viruses, and artificial intelligence, which has led to increased speculation about Lieber and the lab leak, which his lawyers say has led to unrelenting online attacks.
“Professor Lieber had been giving some lectures and interacting with some folks at Wuhan University of Technology right around the time that the COVID pandemic was breaking out, and Dr. Lieber was the subject of a lot of online hatred and vitriol about supposedly bringing the COVID pandemic from Wuhan,” Mukasey remarked during a court appearance for his client, adding, “which is obviously completely fictional.”
As a nanoscientist, Lieber’s expertise has been the study of very small things. And viruses are the smallest of living things.
One of Lieber’s most noteworthy military grant-sponsored innovations at the time of his arrest was a virus-sensing device that used ultrasensitive nanowires capable of real-time detection, an early warning system for disease and bioterrorism. Lieber described his invention this way to the Harvard Gazette in 2004: “Viruses are among the most important causes of human disease and are of increasing concern as agents for bioterrorism.”
With that invention, the DoD ramped up its funding for Lieber’s work, awarding him millions in grants for studies including: “Nanoelectronics Innervated Cells, Cell Networks and Three-Dimensional Biomaterials,” and “Cyborgcell: Molecular-Nanoscale Circuits for Active Control of Cells,” and, notably, another grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to study “Innervated Blood-Brain-Barrier Tissue for the Study of Neuroinvasion by Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis Virus (VEEV).”
Military investigators caught wind of Lieber’s connections to China and began to visit his lab, according to an Office of Inspector General report, which is when Lieber began to “chronically lie,” about his work in Wuhan, according to Los Angeles Magazine review of court testimony, interview transcripts and federal reports. Lieber now insists that while his work for the Chinese was indeed lucrative, he was not motivated by treason or greed – but ego. He had been promised help from the Chinese in obtaining an elusive Nobel Prize.
“My fault is I want to be recognized for what I’ve done…,” he stammered to FBI agents after his arrest. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.”
Any shot at that glory is now gone. Lieber’s once renowned reputation “is now in tatters,” his lawyers wrote in a sentencing brief. “After 30 years at Harvard, Professor Lieber is no longer employed by the university. He no longer has a laboratory, equipment, research materials, funding, students, or salary. He will never again be awarded a government grant for research.”
Caltech, where Lieber spent two years pursuing his post doctorate degree, released a statement about the allegations against Lieber, calling them “alarming,” especially as they pertained to “the present-day tensions with China.”
Lieber’s defense attorneys are trying to place blame on the FBI for their client’s predicament, saying agents “exploited Professor Lieber’s inexperience and vulnerability,” by getting him to make videotaped statements about his work in Wuhan without a lawyer present after his arrest, calling him “a novice in the criminal-justice system, and a vulnerable, cancer-stricken novice at that.”
They describe a man dedicated to scientific excellence was balanced by dedication to his family, the wife he met at Caltech in June 1990 and their two children, a son who is a third-year orthopedic surgery resident at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, and a daughter who is a hairstylist in Philadelphia. “When not in the lab,” Lieber’s lawyers wrote, “he spent his time with family, helping his children build models, coaching wrestling, and growing giant pumpkins in the back yard.” Pumpkins that were grown with bioengineered seeds in the front lawn of his sprawling home, including one that weighed nearly 1,900 pounds—the largest ever grown in Massachusetts—that took first prize at a Rhode Island state fair.
While Lieber’s cancer is in remission, prison could hasten his death, his lawyers argue. They are hoping a judge sentences him to time served—two days behind bars—pointing to other academics who were caught up in what they call a “now discredited,” DOJ dragnet dubbed Operation Lurking Giants that targeted Chinese espionage at Ivy League schools and elsewhere, and who saw their charges dropped under the Biden Administration.
“For the last three years…Professor Lieber has been largely confined to his home and hospitals, fighting for his life on multiple fronts,” his lawyers argued in the brief.
The government, however, is seeking a “weighty punishment” for Lieber, writing that the Harvard chair “purposely—and repeatedly—lied to government agents…he purposely concealed from tax authorities the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to him,” by Chinese authorities. “Lieber had no reason to commit these crimes. He certainly did not need the money.”
He was instead motivated, prosecutors argue, by “greed and a warped sense of entitlement,” along with “a selfish desire to advance his career—and because he thought he could get away with it,” they say.
Despite these harsh words, the government then recommended a mild sentence, grouping all of his convictions from a 2021 trial into a single tax fraud count, one commensurate of a man characterized in a sentencing brief who “has lived a life of extraordinary privilege”—90 days in prison, one year of supervised release (including 90 days of home confinement), a $150,000 fine, and restitution to the Internal Revenue Service of $33,600.
The light sentence, Ashwin Ram, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted cases like Lieber’s as an Assistant US Attorney in the Major Frauds Section in L.A., believes is rooted in politics.
The real question that needs to be asked, he said, is “What was Lieber lying to protect?”
“He lied to the government repeatedly. But why did he lie to the government repeatedly?” Ram said. Being a member of the Thousand Talents Program is not illegal, he points out, even if secreting bundles of cash is. “Is that all he was hiding?”
During the Trump Administration, the Department of Justice was laser-focused on combating Chinese espionage, which FBI Director Wray calls, the “greatest long-term threat to our economic vitality… and by extension, to our national security,” and targeted academics like Lieber who were working for the Thousand Talents Program with a task force known as the China Initiative. When President Biden took office, he called the crackdowns xenophobic, and scrapped the initiative entirely, which, Ram said, is reflected in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s recommendation for Lieber.
“It’s a sentence that reflects the views of the current administration and the prosecutors about the Thousand Talents Program prosecutions,” Ram added. “It’s politics.”
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