Contributing Lawyers


Cyndee Todgham Cherniak

United States

Susan Kohn Ross


Andrew Hudson

Professor Roth Sentenced to Four Years in Prison

On July 1, 2009, a U.S. federal judge sentenced a retired University of Tennessee professor to four years in prison breaching U.S. export laws by for passing sensitive information from a U.S. Air Force contract to two research assistants from China and Iran.

This case sends an important and loud warning that no one is above the law and ignorance of the law is no excuse for not following the law. The case marks the first time the government used the export control act to crack down on the distribution of restricted data (not hardware) to foreigners in a university setting.

Even some seasoned export control practitioners feel a degree of sympathy for Professor Roth. Roth testified at trial that he received only about $6,000 from the U.S. Air Force contract. He needed to use students. However, the problem is that Roth allowed the two graduate students (one from Iran and one from China) to see sensitive information while they researched a plasma-guidance system for unmanned aircraft.

The lesson to be learned is that one should ask questions about U.S. export controls law. Knowledge is critical to compliance. Universities and other educational settings need to conduct compliance audits. The U.S. universities and colleges aim to attract foreign students, who often pay higher tuition, in order to attract the best professors and conduct leading research.

In the current economic climate, this case highlights that a balance is necessary. On one side of the scale, the U.S. Government should be communicating with the educational institutions about what is required under U.S. export controls laws. Despite the profile of the Roth case, the U.S. Government should do more to help educational institutions establish compliance programs.

On the other side of the scale, educational institutions will need to follow the export controls rules. It is obvious that some who wish to do harm to the U.S. can gain access to the U.S. via higher education institutions. It goes without saying that some of the most advanced military and nuclear research takes place in an educational setting. It is possible that a student can gain access to controlled information and goods and take information back home to enemies of the U.S. and its friends and allies.

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