WASHINGTON – The FBI strongly believes a Japanese science institute was actively involved in an alleged act of economic espionage involving genetic materials on Alzheimer’s disease, according to a declassified paper drawn up by an FBI agent.
In his affidavit, the agent said he came to suspect the involvement of Japan’s Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken) in the espionage after reviewing details of e-mail messages exchanged between Riken researchers and Takashi Okamoto, a former Cleveland Clinic Foundation researcher.
The affidavit, dated Aug. 27, 1999, was submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Northeastern District of Ohio. Its release marks the first time U.S. investigative authorities have disclosed documents in connection with the incident since making public the indictment papers.
The agent drew up the affidavit to request that the FBI be allowed to search Okamoto’s U.S. residence and the files of three personal computers he used.
In May this year, federal prosecutors in Ohio indicted Okamoto and Hiroaki Serizawa, an assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Kansas, on charges of stealing genetic materials developed by the federally funded Cleveland clinic.
The affidavit, however, does not mention Serizawa at all, but rather cites another Japanese researcher at the CCF as Okamoto’s accomplice. The second researcher has so far not been indicted in the case.
The agent says in the affidavit that he “has conducted interviews, reviewed official statements of potential witnesses, official documents such as e-mail communications, shipping receipts, telephone records, and other official records.”
The affidavit states that about 1,000 DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and 250 cell line chemical reagents were stolen from a CCF laboratory on June 9 and 16, 1999, respectively.
Okamoto concealed his plan to move to Riken until immediately before leaving the CCF, assuring his boss, Dr. Bruce Trapp, chairman of the Department of Neuroscience at the CCF, several occasions that the rumor he was leaving the center “was not true” and that he “was staying at CCF,” according to the agent’s affidavit.
According to the court indictment, Okamoto resigned from his research position at the Cleveland Clinic on July 26, 1999, and began work at the Riken institute, in Japan, eight days later.
The agent said in his affidavit that he detected an e-mail Okamoto received from a Riken employee at 11:13 p.m. on June 2, 1999, with the subject identified as “Frozen samples.” He received the message just before he left the CCF.
It quoted the employee as telling Okamoto, “I will save the space in a deep freezer for you. How much size are the two white boxes?” Moreover, the paper says Okamoto’s “criminal conduct may be influenced or directed by Japanese agents or representatives associated with Riken.”
The agent also argues that Okamoto and the second researcher “concealed their relationship to Riken because the crimes they committed were done to the benefit of Riken and their future employment at this institute.”
Senior Riken official Shin Okochi denied allegations that Okamoto was ever instructed to steal the genetic materials and said the e-mail communications exchanged between Okamoto and Riken researchers were usual exchanges of information.
The United States will ask the Japanese government to extradite Okamoto, currently employed at Riken, back to the U.S. for questioning in the case, a federal attorney said in May.
Okamoto’s lawyer said he does not believe the paper is credible as it contains a great deal of hearsay evidence, adding that he does not feel it necessary to offer a counterargument against the affidavit.
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