In July of 2020, federal prosecutors brought criminal visa fraud charges against a Stanford University medical researcher who was allegedly a secret member of the Chinese military.
On Thursday, the government added additional charges, including obstruction of an official investigation and altering, destroying or concealing records.
The superseding indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that Chen Song, a Chinese national and a neurologist, came to Stanford in early 2019. She had an appointment as a Visiting Scholar and was going to work in a neurological research lab at the University.
In order to enter the country, she applied for a non-immigrant visa and in November of 2018 she was issued a J-1 visa. According to the Department of State website, a J-1 visa is "for individuals approved to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs." Song allegedly lied in her visa application, saying that while she had once served in the Chinese military, she had left in 2011. She did not disclose that she remained an active member of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force, according to the filing.
Her deception helped prevent consular or diplomatic officials from considering if a student visa was actually appropriate, according to an affidavit given by Joyce Blalock, an FBI Special Agent involved in the matter.
In papers filed to oppose Song's release from custody, the government described three other cases of alleged visa fraud by Chinese nationals working, respectively, as researchers at U.C.S.F., U.C. Davis, and Duke University.
According to the government filing, Song's case "is not an isolated one, but instead appears to be part of a program conducted by the [Chinese military] to send military scientists to the United States on false pretenses with false covers or false statements about their true employment. There exists evidence in at least one of these cases of a military scientist copying or stealing information from American institutions at the direction of military superiors in China."
The indictment says that when Song was confronted by federal investigators, she repeatedly denied her membership in the Chinese military but when she was shown posts that showed her affiliation with a military hospital in China, she abruptly refused further comment.
The indictment describes numerous steps Song took to cover her tracks after she learned that federal investigators in San Francisco had indicted another Chinese national in June 2020 on similar changes. Song attempted to delete a file called "2018 Visiting Scholar Important Information" from an external storage drive that she used, according to the filing.
After executing a search warrant and seizing the drive, investigators were able to recover the file.
They found a copy of a letter in Chinese from Song to the Chinese consulate in New York in which Song "explained that she was extending her stay in the United States and that her stated employer, the Beijing Xi Diaoyutai Hospital, was a false front." She allegedly stated that she had obtained approval for her extension from both the Chinese Air Force and a Chinese military hospital and that the approval was reflected in a classified document that she could not send online. The file also contained a photograph allegedly showing Song in a Chinese military uniform. Metadata associated with the photograph suggested it came from a time period well after she said she had left the Chinese military.
At Stanford, Song worked in a lab studying an autoimmune disorder known as myasthenia gravis.
"People with myasthenia gravis start to lose control of their muscles," according to Mark Clapper, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. "When you think of something, you don't have to say, 'move my finger'. You just move your finger... People with myasthenia gravis, they start to lose the ability to control these muscles" because the disease destroys the receptors located where nerves connect to the muscles, thereby blocking the signals that tell the muscles what to do.
The indictment does not explain if there is something about the disease that would be of interest to the Chinese military. A request for information on that topic was not immediately answered by representatives of the federal prosecutors.
Song was released from custody in July of 2020 after posting bond, currently set at $250,000, and under the condition that she not leave the United States. According to a pre-trial statement, she is currently residing with relatives in Newark.