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Lawsuit accuses top U.S. research institute of coverup

Jan. 16, 2015
by Jack Lu­cen­tini

A phys­ics pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy has sued the school, say­ing it cov­ered up sus­pected il­le­gal da­ta-gathering and shar­ing by an Is­rae­li ac­a­dem­ic work­ing there.

Pro­fes­sor San­dra Troian says that in­stead of ad­dress­ing the sus­pect­ed leaks of gov­ern­ment-funded tech­no­logy, Cal­tech’s ad­min­is­tra­tors turned on her for re­port­ing them, then tried to ru­in her ca­reer as she per­sisted. 

The school and the Israeli deny the claims and the school asserts the pro­fes­sor, San­dra Troian, is dis­sat­is­fied with the out­come of a re­cent probe in­to her work.

Troian’s cause was quickly tak­en up by a Van­cou­ver, Wash.-based or­gan­iz­a­tion, If Amer­i­cans Knew, which con­tends—though the Is­rae­li gov­ern­ment hotly dis­putes it—that Is­ra­el has a long his­to­ry of spy­ing on and qui­etly un­der­min­ing the Un­ited States.

If the al­lega­t­ions are true, they “pro­vide a case study of how U.S. tax­pay­er funded sci­en­tif­ic tech­nol­o­gy is stol­en by Is­ra­el,” said the group’s di­rec­tor, Al­i­son Weir, in a state­ment Jan. 14. “U.S. agen­cies per­i­od­ic­ally name Is­ra­el as a top es­pi­o­nage threat against the Un­ited States.”

Cal­tech, based in Pas­a­de­na, Calif., man­ages NASA’s Je­t Pro­pul­sion Lab­o­r­a­to­ry, or JPL, a top U.S. cen­ter for robotic so­lar sys­tem ex­plora­t­ion and re­search.

As the law­suit de­scribes it, the pil­fered da­ta con­cerned a new type of space pro­pul­sion sys­tem un­der de­vel­op­ment at JPL with U.S. De­fense De­part­ment fund­ing since 2010. The al­leged re­cip­i­ent of the leaked in­forma­t­ion: a sci­ent­ist at an Is­rae­li uni­vers­ity not­ed for sup­ply­ing mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy to the Is­rae­li gov­ern­ment.

Troian’s law­suit said Cal­tech ad­min­is­tra­tors, some of whom al­so had ties to Is­ra­el, pro­tected the Is­rae­li sus­pected of the leaks, Amir Gat, who worked in her lab­o­r­a­to­ry. Gat, who has since moved to Is­ra­el, said in an email that Troian’s claims have “no factual basis.”

“I have never been contacted by the FBI or any other United States law enforcement agency regarding my work at Caltech. I am confident that any court considering this case will conclude that the allegations relating to me are baseless,” he added.

Troian’s law­suit de­scribes much of the al­leged re­talia­t­ion for her whistle­blow­ing as hav­ing come di­rectly from Cal­tech Prov­ost Ed­ward Stolper.

Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, Stolper told Troian last March that he would make her “mis­er­able” if she did­n’t co­op­er­ate with him. The law­suit says Cal­tech has sys­tematic­ally ex­clud­ed Troian from grants, meet­ings, com­mit­tees and oth­er ca­reer op­por­tun­i­ties, and pur­sued a sham in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion against her.

Cal­tech re­leased a state­ment Jan. 13 say­ing “in­tends to vig­or­ously de­fend this law­suit, which is mer­it­less,” and that Troian suf­fered “no re­talia­t­ion.”

It added that Troian “was dis­sat­is­fied with the out­come of a re­cent in­ter­nal cam­pus in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion in­to her de­ci­sion to list her cat as the au­thor of a pub­lished ab­stract and omit rec­og­ni­tion of a post­doc­tor­al schol­ar who per­formed re­lat­ed re­search.”

Troian dis­put­ed both counter-al­lega­t­ions and said jok­ingly list­ing pets as co-au­thors is com­mon at phys­ics con­fer­ences. Even 2010 Phys­ics No­bel Lau­re­ate An­dre Greim has co-au­thored a re­search pa­per with his ham­ster, ac­cord­ing to her law­suit.

Mean­while, Troian’s law­yer, Dan Storm­er, told KABC-TV in Los An­ge­les that an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion in­to the da­ta breaches at Cal­tech ap­pears to be still on­go­ing.

Troian al­leges that Ga­t ad­mit­ted to shar­ing in­forma­t­ion about the pro­pul­sion proj­ect in 2010 with Dan­iel Weihs, a re­searcher at Technion-Is­ra­el In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy in Hai­fa, Is­ra­el. The in­sti­tute has pro­vid­ed mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy to the Is­rae­li gov­ern­ment and, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, Weihs was serv­ing on Is­rae­li gov­ern­ment com­mit­tees.

Troian filed the law­suit Jan. 13 in Los An­ge­les Coun­ty Su­pe­ri­or Court. In con­trast to her crit­i­cisms of Cal­tech ad­min­istra­t­ion, Troian had only praise for of­fi­cials at JPL it­self, who, she told the Pas­a­de­na Star-News, “acted hon­orably through­out.” The law­suit says JPL of­fi­cials sup­ported her at sev­er­al stages in the dis­pute.


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A physics professor at the California Institute of Technology has sued the school, claiming it covered up suspected illegal data-gathering and sharing by an Israeli academic working there. Professor Sandra Troian said that instead of addressing the alleged violations, Caltech’s administrators turned on her for reporting them, then tried to ruin her career as she persisted. The school denies it and claims the professor, Sandra Troian, is dissatisfied with the outcome of a recent probe into her work. Troian’s cause was quickly taken up by a Vancouver, Wash.-based organization, If Americans Knew, which contends—though the Israeli government hotly disputes it—that Israel has a long history of spying on and quietly undermining the United States. If the allegations are true, they “provide a case study of how U.S. taxpayer funded scientific technology is stolen by Israel,” said the group’s director, Alison Weir, in a statement Jan. 14. “U.S. agencies periodically name Israel as a top espionage threat against the United States.” Caltech, based in Pasadena, Calif., manages NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, a top U.S. center for robotic solar system exploration and research. As the lawsuit describes it, the pilfered data concerned a new type of space propulsion system under development at JPL with U.S. Defense Department funding since 2010. The alleged recipient of the leaked information: a scientist at an Israeli university noted for supplying military technology to the Israeli government. Troian’s lawsuit said Caltech administrators, some of whom also had ties to Israel, protected the Israeli suspected of the leaks, Amir Gat, who worked in her laboratory. Gat, who has since moved to Israel, did not respond to an email requesting comment, though he has said in other published reports that he is no spy. Troian’s lawsuit describes much of the alleged retaliation for her whistleblowing as having come directly from Caltech Provost Edward Stolper. According to the lawsuit, Stolper told Troian last March that he would make her “miserable” if she didn’t cooperate with him. The lawsuit said Caltech has systematically excluded Troian from grants, meetings, committees and other career opportunities, and pursued a sham investigation against her. Caltech released a statement Jan. 13 saying “intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit, which is meritless,” and that Troian suffered “no retaliation.” It added that Troian “was dissatisfied with the outcome of a recent internal campus investigation into her decision to list her cat as the author of a published abstract and omit recognition of a postdoctoral scholar who performed related research.” Troian disputed both counter-allegations and said jokingly listing pets as co-authors is common at physics conferences. Even 2010 Physics Nobel Laureate Andre Greim has co-authored a research paper with his hamster, according to her lawsuit. Meanwhile, Troian’s lawyer, Dan Stormer, told KABC-TV in Los Angeles that an FBI investigation into the data breaches at Caltech appears to be still ongoing. Troian alleges that Gat admitted to sharing information about the propulsion project in 2010 with Daniel Weihs, a researcher at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. The institute has provided military technology to the Israeli government and, according to the lawsuit, Weihs was serving on Israeli government committees. Troian filed the lawsuit Jan. 13 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. In contrast to her criticisms of Caltech administration, Troian had only praise for officials at JPL itself, who, she told the Pasadena Star-News, “acted honorably throughout.” The lawsuit said JPL officials supported her at several stages in the dispute.