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Book Review: The Scientist and the Spy. Review by Russell Atkinson

Early this year The Scientist and the Spy, by Mara Hvistendahl, was published by Riverhead Books.

The following is a description of the book by the publisher:


A true story of industrial espionage in which a Chinese-born scientist is pursued by the U.S. government for trying to steal trade secrets.

In September 2011, sheriff’s deputies in Iowa encountered three ethnic Chinese men near a field where a farmer was growing corn seed under contract with Monsanto. What began as a simple trespassing inquiry mushroomed into a two-year FBI operation in which investigators bugged the men’s rental cars, used a warrant intended for foreign terrorists and spies, and flew surveillance planes over corn country—all in the name of protecting trade secrets of corporate giants Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. The Scientist and the Spy recounts this unusually far-reaching investigation, which pitted a veteran FBI special agent tasked with fighting a national-security priority against Florida resident Robert Mo, who after his academic career foundered took a questionable job with the Chinese agricultural company DBN in order to support his family. As the investigation took a series of unexpected twists and turns, the FBI agent was forced to reckon with an unexpected outcome, while Mo ended up questioning everything he valued.

Industrial espionage by Chinese companies is a catalyst for the United States’ recent trade war with China and one of the top counterintelligence targets of the FBI. But efforts to stem the problem have been largely ineffective. Through previously unreleased FBI files and her reporting from across the United States and China, Hvistendahl describes a long history of shoddy counterintelligence on China, much of it tinged with racism, and questions the role that corporate influence plays in trade secrets theft cases brought by the U.S. government. With compelling characters and vivid scenes, The Scientist and the Spy is both an important exploration of the issues at stake and an engrossing read.


The following review was written by retired FBI Special Agent Russell Atkinson:

As a retired FBI agent who worked both foreign counterintelligence against China and Economic Espionage cases, I found this book fascinating. I did not know of this particular case before reading the book, and have no preconceived notions about the case itself.

The prose flows smoothly here with the author’s engaging style. Her research is good but I got the impression there was a slight pro-China or at least pro-Chinese individuals leaning in her writing, which is only natural for someone who spent years there and no doubt has many friendships and deep roots there.

Investigating and prosecuting economic espionage cases is a very complex business and much of the investigator’s job cannot be brought out or appreciated in a book of this nature. Still, I think the author does a good job of discussing how victim companies are in a bind when the FBI or any law enforcement becomes involved and almost adversarial to the government in such cases. I wish she had spent a little more time on that.The criminal prosecution complicates their business, often threatening to reveal their trade secrets in court.

If civil litigation is in process, which it usually is, the defense is handed the argument that the victim company is using the government as their agent or their investigator. The argument goes that the government shouldn’t put its finger on the scales of what is essentially a business dispute. My view is that a theft is a theft whether the victim is Molly’s Hair Salon or Megacorp and law enforcement should investigate crimes and prosecute thieves. A crime victim should be allowed to cooperate with law enforcement without being punished for it.

One glaring omission for those of us in the field is the issue of adequate protection. In order to have a crime under the EEA of 1996, whether trade secret theft or economic espionage, it is necessary to prove that the trade secret was in fact a secret, i.e. that it was sufficiently well-protected.

The defense will always claim that it wasn’t really a secret, or not well-protected enough to be considered secret. In effect the argument becomes, “if my client was able to steal it, then it must not be a trade secret and therefore not a crime.” The crime, in effect, doesn’t ever exist. I consider the argument to be specious.

The author confuses this issue with the technological value of the thing stolen. A trade secret doesn’t have to be technology at all. In fact, the most valuable trade secret in most companies is a Rolodex with names of customers or suppliers. It can be internal pay records and personnel performance reviews. It seems to me that the issue of protections afforded (or not) to the corn seed lines was, or should have been, a major issue in this case, yet it was little discussed. 

Reviewer Bio:

Russell Atkinson was the FBI case agent on the first prosecution under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 in California. In FBI Case File Review with Jerri Williams, Russ reviews the case centered on the theft of radiological device technology and encrypted materials by David Kern, the former employee of a Silicon Valley tech firm.  On January 13, 2000, David Kern pleaded guilty to one count of trade secret theft. He was sentenced on April 4, 2000 to a year and a day in federal prison.

Russell Atkinson is currently a fiction and non-fiction writer. He is the creator of the popular Cliff Knowles crime-fiction mystery series, as well as the founder of the On Words Blog.

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Ron Alvarez is an IP investigations and protection consultant and writer in New York City. He is a former NYPD lieutenant where he investigated robbery, narcotics, internal affairs, and fine art theft cases. Ron has since coordinated the private investigation of international fraud and money laundering cases, as well as IP-related investigations and research involving the four pillars of IP: copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Ron is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and earned a B.A. in Government and Public Administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. He has written a number of articles for various investigative publications, as well as published "The World of Intellectual Property (IP) Protection and Investigations" in November 2021.

1 comment on “Book Review: The Scientist and the Spy. Review by Russell Atkinson

  1. Pingback: FBI Director Wray: “There is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China.” – IP PROBE – Blog

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