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Published: Tuesday, 6/5/2001

A little scientific perfidy

Don't look yet, but the FBI appears to have done a better job catching an economic spy - one who did work on government-funded Alzheimer's disease research at Cleveland Clinic - than it did trying to track a nuclear spy at Los Alamos.

For the first time under an economic espionage section of a 1996 federal law that protects sensitive technologies, material, and information, the government has indicted two Japanese scientists, saying they conspired to steal trade secrets to benefit a foreign government and moved stolen property across state lines.

One is Takashi Okamoto, a brilliant, driven researcher who now works for a Japanese government-supported brain research institute said to have benefited from the treachery. The other, arrested recently, is Hiroaki Serizawa, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

According to the indictment, Mr. Okamoto swiped lab materials he was working on, sent them to Mr. Serizawa, and sabotaged materials left behind. He stopped in Kansas to retrieve the goods on his way to Japan, where he had already taken a job without telling his Cleveland Clinic bosses.

Whether the two go to trial, mere reports of such shenanigans cast a pall on all scientists from other countries who work for American governments or private corporations. And they warn supervisors at American research facilities to be watchful.

Mr. Okamoto's lawyer says the government has it all wrong. It's true that indictments are charges, not averments of truth. We'll see what the story is about that after the arias we expect Mr. Serizawa to sing are broadcast.

The 1996 law was passed after Congress heard of billions of dollars being lost to the theft of research, much of it developed with federal funds. Thus its filching matters to everyone who pays taxes. A report to Congress lists Japan as one of the busiest purloiners of such property.

That will make obtaining justice in this case difficult. To the extent diplomatic policy permits, we must try to extradite Mr. Okamoto from his government-funded post in Japan - a country with which we have already had difficulties over our bases in Okinawa, and a country we don't wish to alienate, given the Bush administration's need for an enemy and its fingering of China, east Asia's other major power, for the role.

The nations of the world must be put on notice that we will not tolerate peacetime Jonathan Pollocks ripping money from our taxpayers' and businesses' pockets by stealing actual and potential economic secrets both have underwritten.

If it does nothing else, this act of enforcement of the 1996 law will tell other betrayers clearly that they, too, can be caught, named, shamed, and prosecuted.

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