The federal government dropped charges against an accused National Weather Service hydrologist last week, five months after she was arrested and charged with illegally accessing and downloading restricted information about the country's dams.
Xiafen Chen, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, Ohio, was arrested by the FBI on October 20, 2014 on suspicion that she illegally accessed and downloaded "sensitive files" from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' National Inventory of Dams. The database stores sensitive data about every dam in the United States, including information about their hydroelectric operations and any potential weaknesses in the structures.
Chen was indicted on four counts related to the alleged incident: one on theft of government property, one on illegally accessing a government database, and two on providing false statements to federal agents. If found guilty of all four charges, Chen could have faced 25 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Although not part of the indictments against Chen, prosecutors planned to tell the jury that she had accessed the files with the intent to feed sensitive information to a water official she met in China while visiting her parents in the country in 2012. Chen's attorneys argued that this was beyond the prosecutors' scope, as she was never formally accused of disseminating the data she was charged with accessing and downloading.
[Defense attorney Peter] Zeidenberg and co-counsel Thomas Zeno had argued in court and in filings that the government overreached in trying to tie Chen to a colleague in China and seeking to bring up that connection to a jury.
"They, originally, thought that this could be some kind of a case of espionage and it turned out that it wasn't," Zeidenberg said. "She never provided any information that wasn't public to anyone."
Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to present "background noise" evidence about China when the charges only addressed that Chen used a co-worker's password to access and download information from the National Inventory of Dams.
Chen further asserts that she "didn't provide restricted information to anyone and had legitimate reasons to access the website." The Wall Street Journal reports that Chen only sent the Chinese official information that was publicly available.
The WSJ article further states that it's rare for the Justice Department to drop charges they've filed against individuals, and after conversations with federal prosecutors, Chen's attorney is "confident that 'as far as the government is concerned, this matter is resolved.'"