SANTA FE – An award-winning former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist has been charged with lying about contacts with a program created to attract scientists and entrepreneurs to China that has come under U.S. government scrutiny as a possible pathway for theft of scientific or technological information.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque announced Friday that physicist Turab Lookman, 67, of Santa Fe faces three charges of making false statements about his involvement with the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Program that the office says tries “to recruit people with access to and knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property.”
The indictment alleges that Lookman lied about interactions with Thousand Talents on an employment questionnaire in 2017 and, in 2018, in a debriefing with a LANL counterintelligence officer and to an investigator from an agency that conducts background investigations for federal agencies.
Lookman was in fact asked to participate in Thousand Talents “for personal compensation,” then applied for and was accepted into the program, all of which he wrongly denied, the indictment states.
Lookman joined LANL in 1999 and worked there until recently, online LANL sources indicate. He was named a Laboratory Fellow in 2017, one of LANL’s highest awards for it scientific staff.
A LANL press release from 2017 said Lookman’s work “has received enormous worldwide attention” and that he was co-author of two books and more than 250 publications. Lookman was also the recipient in 2009 of LANL’s Fellows Prize for Outstanding Research and the 2016 Distinguished Postdoctoral Mentor Award.
Lookman faces up to five years in prison. He is in federal custody pending a detention hearing next week.
Efforts to reach his federal public defender were unsuccessful. A phone message left at a number for Lookman or his wife was not returned. A woman who answered the door at his home on Bishop’s Lodge Road in Santa Fe declined to speak with a reporter.
Next door neighbor David Perkins was stunned when told about the accusations. He said Lookman and his wife moved in about six or seven years ago.
“They’re the best neighbors we ever had,” he said, adding that the Lookmans fixed up the property.
Perkins helped out, teaching Lookman how to use a chain saw. “And then he couldn’t put it down,” he said.
The Lookmans would invite Perkins and his partner, as well as other neighbors and lab employees, to their house for Christmas parties and barbecues in the summer.
“They were really nice get-togethers. Great food,” he said.
Perkins said he didn’t know exactly what Lookman did at LANL, but he did recall that he would sometimes make trips to China. He said Lookman’s wife is from Canada and the couple have two adult daughters.
Perkins said he once asked Lookman how he ended up at LANL and Lookman told him, “From the time I was a little child, I always wanted to work at LANL,” which Perkins thought was strange for someone who wasn’t from America. Perkins wasn’t sure about Lookman’s native country.
“He had a good job, he had a beautiful house, he had a beautiful family. He’s got it made,” Perkins said.
A Chinese university website promotes a Lookman lecture there in 2018.
Thousand Talents was started in 2008 as an effort to attract successful Chinese people abroad to return home to boost the economy. It has attracted more than 7,000 people back to China, most from the United States, the scientific journal Nature reported last year.
Also in 2018, news reports emerged that the program had become the subject of U.S. government investigations.
China’s government banned state media from referencing Thousand Talents after a Chinese American General Electric engineer participating in the program was arrested in Niskayuna, New York, by the FBI. He was indicted in late April in an alleged theft-of-trade-secrets case but denies any wrongdoing.
Nature reported in October that some in academia and science fields were objecting to the U.S. government’s scrutiny of Thousand Talents and saying that espionage fears were unwarranted.
But the commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission advised Congress in April 2018 to cut federal aid to participants in Thousand Talents.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, maintained at one hearing that the program was being used to put “sleeper agents” at research universities, Nature reported.
Friday, a spokesman for LANL provided this statement: “Los Alamos National Laboratory has been in close contact with law enforcement agencies on this issue. We can confirm the named individual is a former Laboratory employee.
“Protecting our technology and intellectual property is of utmost importance to the Laboratory, our employees, customers, and the nation. We have taken this matter very seriously from the moment it was identified through our security protocols.”
A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the wing of the U.S. Department of Energy that oversees the nation’s nuclear labs, said the two federal agencies “consider protecting technology and intellectual property at our laboratories, plants, and sites a top priority. The recent law enforcement matter at Los Alamos National Laboratory is now under the Department of Justice’s jurisdiction.”
LANL’s website, noting Lookman’s recognition as a Laboratory Fellow in 2017, said he “is an expert in the computational physics of materials, complex fluids, and nonlinear dynamics. His research on materials design and informatics applies data science to the discovery of materials with new, beneficial properties.”
Lookman earned his doctorate in theoretical physics from Kings College, University of London, the lab site says.
Journal reporter T.S. Last contributed to this story.