sábado, abril 13

Scientists in Canada Passed Secrets to China, Investigations Find

Two scientists who worked at Canada’s top microbiology lab passed on secret scientific information to China, and one of them was a “realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security,” documents from the national intelligence agency and a security investigation show.

The hundreds of pages of reports about the two researchers, Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng, who were married and born in China, were released to the House of Commons late Wednesday after a national security review by a special parliamentary committee and a panel of three retired senior judges.

Canadian officials, who have warned that the country’s academic and research institutions are a target of Chinese intelligence campaigns, have tightened rules around collaborating with foreign universities. Canadian universities can now be disqualified from federal funding if they enter into partnerships with any of 100 institutions in China, Russia and Iran.

The release of the documents was the subject of a prolonged debate in Parliament that began before the last federal election, in September 2021. Opposition parties asked to see the records at least four times and found the Liberal government to be in contempt of Parliament in 2021. The government filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep the records hidden, but dropped it when the vote was called.

The release comes as the country is holding a special inquiry led by a judge to look into allegations that China and other foreign nations have interfered in Canadian elections and political parties. Some of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political opponents have charged that his government has failed to respond adequately to Chinese meddling in Canadian affairs.

But Mark Holland, the federal health minister in Canada, told reporters late Wednesday that at “no time did national secrets or information that threatened the security of Canada leave the lab.”

The couple were escorted out of their labs at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, during the summer of 2019 and later stripped of their security clearances. They were fired in January 2021.

The same year, the government released heavily redacted records about their dismissal, setting off a battle with opposition parties that were demanding more detail about the security breach.

The large cache of newly released documents, which have significantly fewer redactions, offer more details about the scientists’ unauthorized cooperation and information exchanges with Chinese institutions. The documents also revealed that Dr. Qiu had not disclosed formal agreements with Chinese agencies in which a Chinese institution agreed to pay substantial amounts of research money. It also agreed to pay her an annual salary of 210,000 Canadian dollars (about $155,000).

The couple could not be located, and they did not appear to have any obvious local representatives. Some Canadian news outlets have reported, based on undisclosed sources, that they moved to China after being dismissed. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police opened a criminal investigation in 2021, but its status is unclear and no charges have been laid.

The documents released on Wednesday do not include any general response from the couple. But they show that during questioning by investigators, Dr. Qiu repeatedly said that she was not aware that she had broken any security rules, blamed the health agency for not fully explaining procedures and frequently tried to mislead investigators until confronted by contradictory evidence.

In a letter to Dr. Qiu, the public health agency said that she “did not express remorse or regret. You failed to accept responsibility for your actions and deflected blame onto P.H.A.C.” It added that she did not show “any signs of corrective behavior, rehabilitation or desire for resolution of the situation.”

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service also found that Dr. Qiu repeatedly misrepresented her ties to researchers and organizations in China, relationships it characterized as “close and clandestine.”

In one secret report, the intelligence agency said that when she was asked about her exchanges with scientists and organizations in China, she “continued to make blanket denials, feign ignorance or tell outright lies.”

An internal investigation report for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which includes the lab, shows that the couple fell under suspicion in 2018, when Dr. Qiu was named an inventor on a patent granted in China that appeared to use research developed by the agency for an Ebola vaccine.

That revelation, in turn, suggested that the couple had engaged in several violations of security rules at the laboratory, portions of which are designed for work on the world’s most lethal microbes, including ones that could be used for biological warfare.

Those breaches included attempts by graduate students of Dr. Qiu at the University of Manitoba, all of whom were Chinese nationals, to remove material from the lab and being allowed to wander through the facility unescorted.

In one episode, X-rays revealed that a parcel delivered to the lab for Dr. Cheng — and labeled “kitchen utensils” — contained vials of mouse proteins. The discovery underscored that Dr. Cheng had broken protocols, according to the documents.

An investigation by the intelligence agency found that Dr. Qiu had a formal agreement with Hebei Medical University to work on a “talent program,” something it described as a project “to boost China’s national technological capabilities.”

A report documenting the investigation added that it “may pose a serious threat to research institutions, including government research facilities, by incentivizing economic espionage.” That agreement promised about 1.2 million Canadian dollars (roughly $884,000) in research funding. The agency said the couple did not disclose, as required, that they maintained a bank account in China.

Dr. Qiu, the intelligence service said, also had a résumé she used only in China that showed she was a visiting professor at three Chinese health research institutes and a visiting researcher at a fourth one.

Exactly what information Dr. Qiu may have provided to China and how China may have used it is not clear either from the internal investigation or the intelligence agency reports.

The intelligence service said that many of the institutions she worked with researched “potentially lethal military applications.” When asked as part of an internal investigation about the potential military uses of her work, Dr. Qiu said that the idea had not occurred to her, the documents show.

The internal investigation found that a trip Dr. Qiu made to Beijing in 2018 was paid for by a Chinese biotechnology company.

Mr. Holland said that the lab’s management had demonstrated an “inadequate understanding of the threat of foreign interference.”

He added, “I believe that an earnest effort was made to adhere to those policies, but not with the rigor that was required.”

In a statement, Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative leader, said that the Chinese government and its agencies, “including the People’s Liberation Army, were allowed to infiltrate Canada’s top-level lab.” The statement added, using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China, “They were able to transfer sensitive intellectual property and dangerous pathogens to the P.R.C.”

Vjosa Isai contributed reporting from Toronto.