Last time The Daily Weekly checked in on the case of Lian Yang, the 46-year-old Microsoft-contracted engineer from Woodinville was just being indicted by federal prosecutors. Now, according to pi.com, Yang is expected to plead guilty to charges that he conspired to violate federal arms-export rules by trying to illicitly obtain five "radiation-hardened computer chips" which he intended to smuggle into China. The chips can be used to power everything from weather satellites to nuclear missiles--guess which purpose the feds suspect Yang had in mind for the hardware.
According to NASA, radiation-hardened computer chips--"rad-hard" for short--are specially engineered to function in outer space. Space has a tendency to frazzle the circuitry in normal computer chips, but rad-hard chips "contain extra transistors that take more energy to switch on and off. Cosmic rays can't trigger them so easily. Rad-hard chips continue to do accurate calculations when ordinary chips might 'glitch.'"
Yang has given conflicting accounts of what the technology would be used for once it reached China. Via the PI:
Yang allegedly told an FBI informant the parts were meant for the China Space Technology Co.'s spacecraft program. On another occasion, federal investigators contend Yang said some of the parts would be used in the design of "China's new generation of passenger jet."
A Seattle FBI special agent assigned to counterintelligence noted that Yang later said he didn't know how the high-tech components would be used.
"I don't know where it goes exactly," Yang is alleged to have said. "Maybe . . . I know something totally different. . . . At the end, it's used in a commercial airline. That's what they say, anyway."
China, however, already had access to radiation-hardened chip technology. Thanks to deregulation and a series of deals in the 1990s, the Chinese obtained U.S. rad-hard chip technology, ostensibly for innocuous scientific use. As David Briscoe reported for the AP in 1998:
Other documents being turned over to Congress indicate that in 1996, Clinton approved the export of a radiation-hardened chip for use in Chinese weather satellites. The process guards against the effects of nuclear blasts or other forms of radiation interference, and is considered sensitive technology.
The documents examined briefly by reporters indicate this was the first time such a waiver was granted. But another White House official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said records indicate that similar radiation-hardened components were approved for export to China during the Bush administration.
Yang's case isn't the first time that rad-hard chips have spurred a federal indictment. Last September a U.S. Defense contractor was charged with selling counterfeit versions of the chips, a scheme that prosecutors said "risked the lives of military personnel and potentially endangered national security." And in 2001, a company based in Orlando was caught illegally exporting thousands of rad-hard chips to China, a deal that defense analysts said "improved [China's] ability to target U.S. cities with long-range missiles."
So was Yang helping China improve the aim of its nukes or merely build better passenger aircraft? We may never know for sure, but the federal prosecutors in the case have "no doubt." Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg told the court "that Yang was aware of the nefarious purpose to which his contacts in China intended to put the parts he was attempting to acquire."