Obama-ism, the New McCarthyism: Witch-hunt at Temple

The scene, Fall 1951, the principal, John Reynolds, M.A. Harvard, ’39, assistant professor of ancient history, University of Florida, a speck, lost to memory, in the mammoth national attack on civil liberties in those early heightened times of the Cold War in America. Reynolds, slight of build, silver-wire glasses, son of a prominent Pennsylvania Republican family, non-political, father of youngsters in a Gainesville grammar school—not the stuff of high drama, hence, again forgotten by, lost in the shuffle of, history. Reynolds was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington to answer questions about being a member of the Teachers College Union at Harvard before the war. He was a cooperative witness, not in the sense of naming names, but his simple, unassuming, direct ways and obviously unthreatening demeanor and record, nowhere endangering the security of the United States, won over the Committee and he was given a clean bill of health.

Reynolds returned to Gainesville by train, and at the stop in Jacksonville he got off to get the local paper, the Times-Union, where on the front page he found himself, in an enlarged photo at the witness table, under the banner headline, “John Reynolds, U of F Professor, Fired,” it apparently being sufficient to be called up, whatever the truth of allegations about subversion, etc., to warrant dismissal. No university hearing, no independent investigation, the stigma of being subpoenaed enough—isolated, ostracized, his children at school ridiculed, denounced. Soon Mr. Reynolds left the community, swallowed in the maw of a red-baiting age of hysteria and conformity.

I was 18, an entering freshman, already on a minor scale acquainted with the cultural scene, having, as a high-school student, supported Henry Wallace in ’48, and then Claude Pepper against George Smathers in 1950, the former leading to my denunciation in open class in 10th grade World History, the latter, as a senior, summoned by the assistant dean of students and told to watch my step. (I ran for vice-president in the student body election on the campaign issue—no one else had campaign issues—of racially integrating the schools in Dade County.) From some village hamlet out of Faulkner or Capote? Hardly, this was Miami Beach Senior High, tops in academics, student body 95% Jewish, fellow students like Sandy Weill and Robert Rubin—a pretty sophisticated place (except for the teachers). But this was 1948-51, a chilling period for the overt silencing of dissent.

Fast-forward now to 2015, déjà vu all over again (thanks Yogi) except that anticommunism never left the scene, and with it the narrowing of permissible boundaries of political discussion, an America drawing inward, somewhat more sophisticated, less raw, less overt, than earlier, but the steady progression then until now in discouraging free thought and, yes, still watchful about and punishing dissent. (I was eased out of Yale as assistant professor in the early 1960s because of antiwar and civil-rights involvement—the history department a bastion of reaction.) The country is so used to the tightening of opinion, marking an ever-moving Rightward shift of the political spectrum, so that today’s Democrats, a party of war and haute financial-industrial capitalism worthy of the Republicans of yesteryear, themselves now considerably worse than before, is illustrated by the National Security Agency’s program of massive surveillance under Obama’s tutelage and orders. The buck stops here; he cannot exempt himself from responsibility for the most widespread violation of civil liberties in US history, less dramatic than the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer Raids, HUAC, but more lethal in its technological advancement and, of course, its very presence cautioning one to stop, think, and check oneself for fear of Big Brother listening in. The breadth of political discourse in America is shocking, as witness the current candidates of both parties for the presidency. I include Sanders’s shabby foreign-policy record, an utter sham!

Instead of John Reynolds we have Xi Xiaoxing, instead of the University of Florida we have Temple University, instead of history we have physics, instead of 1951 we have 2015, yet the flow of the American structural-ideological narrative is essentially the same, a constant of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, antiradicalism, proclivity to war, only now, the transition from hating and fearing Russia to hating and fearing China, Obama’s bete noire as in his Pacific-first militarism and Trans-Pacific Partnership (though Russia is not forgotten in the process). I turn then to New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo’s excellent article, “U.S. Drops Charges That Professor Shared Technology With China,” (Sept. 12), note, technology, not espionage and stealing atomic secrets, as charged against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but technology: All hail, under Obama, private enterprise, the holy grail—not as quest but chief certitude in place–of the American mindset. Apuzzo begins: “When the Justice Department arrested the chairman of Temple University’s physics department this spring and accused him of sharing sensitive American-made technology with China, prosecutors had what seemed like a damning piece of evidence: schematics of sophisticated laboratory equipment sent by the professor, Xi Xiaoxing, to scientists in China.” Arrest last spring, the dropping of charges Friday (Sept. 11). In between, a veritable hell.

The subversive brouhaha, if we can call it that, for the uproar was more pernicious: “The schematics, prosecutors said, revealed the design of a device known as a pocket heater. The equipment is used in superconductor research, and Dr. Xi had signed an agreement promising to keep its design a secret.” Even were he at fault (it turns out he was not), that hardly warranted his treatment: “But months later, long after federal agents had led Dr. Xi away in handcuffs, independent experts discovered something wrong with the evidence at the heart of the Justice Department’s case: The blueprints were not for a pocket heater.” Xi had violated no agreement—we go from brouhaha to fiasco, nothing criminal (one wonders at the scope and content of this week’s announcement that the Justice Department is going after white-collar crime, probably shared business research especially with regard to China, not financial improprieties), still though handcuffs.

Apuzzo continues; we see the utter shoddiness of the government’s case, compounded no doubt by the fact that Obama’s obsession, China, has been brought in: “Faced with sworn statements from leading scientists, including an inventor of the pocket heater, the Justice Department on Friday afternoon dropped all charges against Dr. Xi, an American citizen. [He came to the US in 1989 and was subsequently naturalized.] It was an embarrassing acknowledgment that prosecutors and F.B.I. agents did not understand—and did not do enough to learn—the science at the heart of the case before bringing charges that jeopardized Dr. Xi’s career and left the impression that he was spying for China.” And Xi’s own response, in a telephone interview with the reporter: “’I don’t expect them to understand everything I do. But the fact that they don’t consult with experts and then charge me? Put my family through all this? Damage my reputation? They shouldn’t do this. This is not a joke. This is not a game.’” I can hear Mr. Reynolds’s voice as I write this. No, put my family through all this, damage my reputation, this is not a game. We circulated a petition, headed “Fair Shake for Mr. Reynolds,” when he was fired. It did no good.

Here Apuzzo is right on target: “The United States faces an onslaught from outside hackers and inside employees trying to steal government and corporate secrets. [Perhaps an exaggeration, but from there his emphasis is clear.] President Obama’s strategy to combat it involves aggressive espionage investigations and prosecutions, as well as increased cyberdefenses. But Dr. Xi’s case, coming on the heels of a similar case that was dismissed a few months ago in Ohio, raises questions about whether the Justice Department, in its rush to find Chinese spies, is ensnaring innocent American citizens of Chinese ancestry.” I will return to the “similar case” at the close—the same features, a wild charge, Chinese ancestry, etc., and in fact Xi’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, also represented Sherry Chen, a government hydrologist also charged with “economic espionage” (a chilling phrase) and after a lengthy process released.

Can the president plead ignorance of detailed DOJ/FBI operations? I don’t think so. The Obama Vendetta against all (capitalistic-related) things pertaining to China, not only TPP but the extensive investigations and prosecutions concerning economic espionage, should be too well-known to hide. On the Xi case, the government filing was worded so that it could “file the charges again if it chooses.” Moreover, “A spokesman for John P. Carlin, the assistant attorney general who is overseeing the crackdown on economic espionage, had no comment on whether Justice Department officials in Washington [the US Attorney in Philadelphia had brought the charges] reviewed the case.” The science in Xi’s case was complex, but Zeidenberg, himself a longtime government prosecutor now with Arent Fox, noted that “despite the complexity, it appeared that the government never consulted with experts [a bad habit, as in the Chen case] before taking the case to a grand jury. As a result, prosecutors misconstrued the evidence, he said.” Did I say, Obama Vendetta, perhaps more like Obama Rampage. For Zeidenberg further said “he understood that agents felt intense pressure to crack down on Chinese espionage but the authorities in these cases [he includes Chen] appeared to have been too quick to assume that their suspicions were justified.”

How many are lucky enough to have Zeidenberg to defend them? The cases brought by the government now number in the hundreds (with little public awareness of what is going on). And the charge of economic espionage sticks in the craw because it connotes more than the economic/industrial kind, and rather disloyalty to government and nation. Obama plays that card skillfully. Exempt him from responsibility? US prosecutors even charged a Chinese worker with stealing secrets about “the pigment used to whiten Oreo cookie cream.” (To paraphrase Joseph Welsh at the Army-McCarthy hearings, hath American business no shame in running down those who pursue trade secrets?) Zeidenberg stated that Xi’s emails to scientists in China “represented the kind of international academic collaboration that governments and universities encourage. The technology discussed was not sensitive or restricted, he said. ‘If he was Canadian-American or French-American, or he was from the U.K., would this have ever even got on the government’s radar? I don’t think so.’” Apuzzo adds, “Other researchers and academics are being closely watched.” By happenstance, they mostly seem to be Chinese.

So what happened in this case? “About a dozen F.B.I. agents, some with guns drawn, stormed Dr. Xi’s home in the Philadelphia suburbs in May, searching his house just after dawn, he [Zeidenberg] said. His two daughters and his wife watched the agents take him away in handcuffs on fraud charges.” Xi’s understated comment: “’Unfortunately I think this is influenced by the politics of the time. But I think it’s wrong. We Chinese-Americans, we contribute to the country, to the national security, to everything.’” Temple, like Florida, “put him on administrative leave [except that UF fired Reynolds] and took away his title as chairman of the physics department. He was given strict rules about who at the school he could talk to. He said that made it impossible for him to continue working on a long-running research project that was nearing completion.” Xi fought back, many simply disappear, the odds so much against them. In Xi’s case, his lawyers reviewed the government’s evidence and only then did he understand what had happened: “’When I read it, I knew they were mixing things up.’” The lawyers “contacted independent scientists and showed them the diagram that the Justice Department said was the pocket heater. The scientists agreed it was not.” Ward Ruby was particularly convincing: “’I am very familiar with this device, as I am one of the co-inventors.’”

After Zeidenberg made “a presentation for prosecutors and explained the science,” and “gave them sworn statements from the experts and implored the Justice Department to consult with a physicist before taking the case any further,” DOJ conditionally dropped the case. As for Xi, he “choked back tears as he described an ordeal that was agonizing for his family. ‘I barely came out of this nightmare,’ he said.” One can appreciate the continuities in America’s mental warping, and why it should be so easy—though comparatively few share this view—to loathe Obama.

I turn briefly to Nicole Perlroth’s article in The Times, “Accused of Spying for China, Until She Wasn’t,” May 9, about Sherry Chen, a US government hydrologist in Ohio, arrested last October and accused of economic espionage, which made, not the front page, but only the “Business Day” section. Although in the throes of massive surveillance, and increasing arrests, the nation was in blissful ignorance—not that it cared (!)—about the Chens and Xis handcuffed and carried away. Same new, same new. “On Monday, Oct. 20, 2014,” Perlroth writes, “Sherry Chen drove, as usual, to her office at the National Weather Service in Wilmington Ohio, where she forecast flood threats along the Ohio River. She was a bit jet-lagged, having returned a few days earlier from a visit to China.” Another ordinary day, she thought. “Then her boss summoned her. Once inside his office, a back door opened and in walked six agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” No, not a Hollywood movie, but Wilmington, Ohio, for god’s sake. A naturalized US citizen, “Mrs. Chen, 59, an adoptive Midwesterner who had received awards for her government service, was now suspected of being a Chinese spy.” The charge: “using a stolen password to download information about the nation’s dams and of lying about meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official.”

Apparently standard operating procedure—handcuffed, marched past co-workers, whisked away, the reporter continues, “to a federal courthouse 40 miles away in Dayton, where she was told she faced 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines.” The details are bone-crushing. Chen’s “life went into a tailspin.” Suspended from work without pay, co-workers and friends “afraid to visit,” “television news trucks parked outside her house, waiting to spot a foreign spy hiding in plain sight in suburban Wilmington, population 12,500.” Like Xi, her personal plight was almost too much to bear, as she relates in a recent interview: “’I could not sleep. I could not eat. I did nothing but cry for days.’” And like Kafka, the order suddenly ends, without explanation. Five months later, just before scheduled to go to trial, the government dropped all charges.

What can be made of this? The spokeswoman for the US Attorney, Southern District of Ohio, simply said, “’We are exercising our prosecutorial discretion,’” as she quickly added that DOJ filed in 2014 400 indictments and criminal informations (the latter, “charges filed in connection with plea agreements”), only 13, including Chen’s, dismissed. Obama’s hand, and specifically economic so-called espionage, easy to detect, Perlroth writes that the US Attorney “would not comment on the investigation, but there is little question that law enforcement is facing new pressure to pursue any lead that could be related to trade-secret theft.” Not atomic secrets; instead, trade-secret theft, Obama as the captain of the Swiss Guard of the Vested Interests. In 2013 he, and AG Holder, already laid out the campaign, “aggressive investigations and prosecutions,“ particularly DOJ “prosecutions under the Economic Espionage Act [which] jumped more than 30 percent from the year before,” and in the first three-quarters of ’14 another 33 percent, the majority of indictments concerning China.

Perlroth has it right: “It was in this climate that prosecutors zeroed in on Mrs. Chen.” One thinks of the Red Scare under Wilson, with a different cast of characters under Obama. This can be seen by a comment of Peter Toren, another former federal prosecutor, now with Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, specializing in computer crimes: “’They came across a person of Chinese descent and a little bit of evidence that they [sic] may have been trying to benefit the Chinese government, but it’s clear there was a little bit of Red Scare and racism involved.’” The reporter concludes, after a careful review of court filings and Chen’s emails, that “prosecutors hunted for evidence of espionage, failed and settled on lesser charges that they eventually dropped.” As for espionage and contacting a high Chinese official, the charges are beyond ludicrous—and the US government should have known that. But under Obama the Red Scare becomes the Yellow Peril, actually a two-fer in that he is positioning the US to confront both China and Russia simultaneously. His legacy will be, not the Iran nuclear negotiations, but an accelerated Cold War, with intervention, covert action, and attempted trade-financial strangulation initial weapons of choice. (Don’t ask what lies in reserve.)

Chen was so conscientious that she developed “carpel-tunnel syndrome in her right hand from eight years of repetitive mouse clicks,” for determining water levels and rainfall in building her forecasting model about Ohio River flooding. In her annual visits to China to see her parents, she was asked by a nephew in 2012 for help on “a payment dispute with provincial officials over a water pipeline,” which led to her meeting with a former classmate, now an official with China’s Ministry of Water Resources (a 15-minute chat about interceding on behalf of her nephew); from there they discussed repairs, comparing experiences, on “aging reservoir systems,” the official curious about how projects in the US were funded. Chen didn’t know, but made a study of funding. The account is too detailed, except to say that in answering his emails (two in all) through making inquiry at the Army Corps of Engineers, she was reported as having contacted the Corps to collect “’water control manuals on behalf of a foreign interest.’” The rest, as we say, is history, handcuffs, a search warrant for her work and email records; on using a stolen password to access a database on dams open to the public, her own expired, she asked a co-worker for his. No information of use was found, her former classmate in China never wrote again, and she still did not know if he ever helped her nephew. The Feds relentlessly pursued the case; in her appearance at Dayton she was charged with four felonies. To which were later added others, including the last year she saw her classmate: “The false statement referred to telling the agents that she had last seen Mr. Jiao in 2011, not 2012.” Fortunately, Zeidenberg gathered all of the evidence and won dismissal of the case.

My New York Times Comment on the Apuzzo article, same date, follows:

McCarthyism redux. Obama, the civil libertarian (?) is obviously to blame for his zeal in prosecuting anyone, however wrongly construed, who can be thought to favor China. This case is at one with the larger context of massive surveillance of the American people. Why worry about Trump and the other Republicans when Obama and his Justice Department are amply prepared to mount persecutory sweeps intended to set the tone for conformity at home and confrontation with Russia and China abroad. Obama-ism displaces McCarthyism as the psychopathology of this generation.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.