Roth Conviction Reveals Gray Areas in Export Law Interpretation

The conviction of professor emeritus J. Reece Roth of the University of Tennessee last Wednesday, September 3, has widespread ramifications on the current state of export law interpretation. Folks on both sides of the argument on whether Roth intentionally used foreign national graduate students for anti-government purposes have failed to recognize whether the information he was working with falls under export laws to begin with. 

According to knoxnews.com, although the information being examined by the Chinese national Xin Dai was to be used on a project involving Air Force drones.  Evidently, due to the fact that the project involved defense munitions systems, it fell under export control laws.   

Professor Roth, however, continued to maintain his lack of intent to circumvent these laws.  According to his interpretation, their work had to do with information, not munitions equipment or devices.  However, the fact that he at first kept student Xin Dai out of the loop and working solely in the lab at first, only to bring him into the fold later led prosecutors to speculate that he knew he was committing an illegal act. 

In addition to Xin Dai being on board with the project, Roth was evidently about to bring an Iranian national on board with the project as well.  This red flag is what led University of Tennessee officials to notify the Air Force of Roth’s activities.   

Facing sentencing in January, Roth faces multiple sentences which will more than likely land him in jail for a minimal amount of time.  The US Attorney General’s office hopes that this case will help to deter others in academia from being careless or lackluster with sensitive information, whether it falls under export law or not. 

Although there are many unanswered questions regarding the Roth trial, one thing is for sure: There is a gray area in export law that needs some light shone upon it.  Otherwise, the ramifications could be huge, both in the number of people prosecuted for unwittingly breaking the law, as well as creating a reluctance to work on projects of a sensitive nature by people who may not be well-versed in export law.

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