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FBI: Plot to Steal Seed Corn a National Security Threat

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has invoked the powers granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to gather evidence against two Chinese brothers who stand accused of stealing patented seed corn from Iowa corn fields.

Mr. Mo Hailong and Mr. Mo Yun are accused of stealing patented seeds from companies including DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto with the goal of smuggling them back to China to be counterfeited by the privately owned Chinese agricultural company, Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group (DBN Group). If convicted, the siblings could face ten years in prison.

The U.S. International Trade Commission reports that in 2009 Chinese companies cost U.S. businesses $48.2 billion through the theft of intellectual property, and in a recent court filing, a DuPont Pioneer attorney wrote that bringing hybrid corn seed to market costs hundreds of millions of dollars and years of research and development.

Though not presenting the same risk as acts of terrorism, for example, the FBI still views trade secret theft and economic espionage as threats to national security. Under FISA, the FBI is allowed to bypass the universal requirement for traditional search warrants, instead getting permission from a confidential Washington, DC- based court designated for the hearing of complex cases involving national security.

By invoking FISA, it makes the relationship of DBN Group to the Chinese government critical to the course of the case, as FISA allows for the collection of intelligence regarding people spying on behalf of foreign governments or government-connected groups. Supporting the FBI, University of Iowa associate professor, Tong Yao found that in 2014 the Chinese government owned 1.8% of DBN Group, however, there are multiple murky factors to consider, and questions remaining as to the true connection of DBN to the Chinese government and its influence over the company. It is just these prevailing questions and lack of transparency that will make it hard for the defense to stop the prosecution from using evidence collected under FISA.

Although the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Iowa indicted seven Chinese citizens in relation to the seed smuggling case, the Mo siblings are the only currently under prosecution. The remaining five people are believed to have left the country, according to court documents. The FBI is also investigating the possibility of ‘insiders’ at the seed companies who could have provided assistance to the plot by giving GPS coordinates of test fields.

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