University professor is Arms Control Act violator

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

In May 2006, the FBI and OSI Office of Special Projects (PJ) initiated a joint investigation into Dr. James Reece Roth, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee (UT), and an employee of a Knoxville-based company known as Atmospheric Glow Technologies (AGT), Inc. Roth also served as the Director of the UT Plasma Sciences Laboratory.

Between 2005 and 2006, AGT subcontracted with Roth and the UT Plasma Sciences Laboratory to help develop plasma actuators for munitions systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in support of an Air Force contract. 

During this time, Roth knowingly provided export-controlled defense information to a Chinese graduate student on his research team, and Roth also travelled to China with export-controlled documents. On one occasion, Roth asked the Chinese graduate student to email export-controlled material to a Chinese professor Roth visited.

It was alleged Roth disclosed technical data including fifteen different defense articles provided to a citizen of the People’s Republic of China in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. The defense articles contained specific military technical data that was restricted and was associated with the Air Force project to develop plasma technology for use on weapons system drones. 

Besides the FBI, OSI’s PJ teamed up with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement to investigate the case.

A U.S. Attorney involved in the case noted, “This case should send a stern warning to those who would betray the trust of our nation by violating the export control laws by providing our military information to foreign nationals.” 

In July 2009, the court sentenced Roth to four years in prison for violating the Arms Export Control Act. He was released in February 2015. It's worth noting that Roth did not start serving his sentence until all his appeals were denied in 2012.

The case set national precedents because it was the first ever conviction for a “deemed” export, meaning the export actually occurred in the United States. Dr. Roth was the first U.S. university professor found guilty of transferring controlled defense technology to foreign recipients.

He was also convicted of one count of wire fraud relating to defrauding the University of Tennessee of his honest services by illegally exporting sensitive military information relating to this Air Force research and development contract. 

These “first” convictions paved the way to identify, neutralize and deter future transfers of protected information to foreign governments and other recipients seeking to shortcut their own research projects by using purloined technical data.