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Chinese Spy 'Slept' In U.S. for 2 Decades

Chi Mak was sentenced to 241/2 years to send a message to China.
Chi Mak was sentenced to 241/2 years to send a message to China. (Sketch By Bill Robles For The Associated Press)
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Recent prosecutions indicate that Chinese agents have infiltrated sensitive military programs pertaining to nuclear missiles, submarine propulsion technology, night-vision capabilities and fighter pilot training -- all of which could help China modernize its programs while developing countermeasures against advanced weapons systems used by the United States and its allies.

"The intelligence services of the People's Republic of China pose a significant threat both to the national security and to the compromise of U.S. critical national assets," said William Carter, an FBI spokesman. "The PRC will remain a significant threat for a long time as they attempt to develop their military capabilities and to develop their economy in order to compete in today's world economy."

While military technology appears to be the top prize, the Chinese effort is also aimed at commercial and industrial technologies, which often are poorly protected, several officials said. "Espionage used to be a problem for the FBI, CIA and military, but now it's a problem for corporations," Brenner said. "It's no longer a cloak-and-dagger thing. It's about computer architecture and the soundness of electronic systems."

Calls placed to the Chinese Embassy in Washington requesting comment on recent spy cases were not returned. But Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that their country is stealing military technology. "We have reiterated many times that allegations that China stole U.S. military secrets are groundless and made out of ulterior motives," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a recent news conference in Beijing, commenting on the Mak case.

But U.S. intelligence and defense officials say China has been able to use technology of U.S. origin in a new generation of advanced naval destroyers and quiet-running, stealthy submarines.

Some of those secrets may have been obtained with the help of Mak, a 67-year-old electrical engineer who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1985 along with his wife, Rebecca Chiu Mak. The two settled in Southern California, where Mak eventually accepted a job with Power Paragon, a defense contractor that specialized in advanced naval propulsion technology. In 1996, Mak was given a security clearance at the "secret" level, which gave him access to sensitive engineering details for U.S. ships and submarines.

In 2003, Mak became the subject of an intensive federal investigation that included court-ordered wiretaps, secret property searches and the clandestine installation of a video camera inside his home. Through surveillance, FBI agents discovered that Mak was in the process of copying thousands of pages of technical documents onto computer disks, which he arranged to send to China using his brother and sister-in-law as couriers.

According to court documents, the Maks encrypted the disks to avoid detection and used coded words to arrange a drop-off of the disks to a Chinese intelligence operative. In one phone conversation, the brother, Tai Wang Mak, intimated that he would be traveling with his wife and a third companion he described as his "assistant" -- a reference, prosecutors said, to the disks, hidden in his luggage.

The plan was foiled on Oct. 28, 2005, when agents arrested Tai Wang Mak as he was preparing to board a plane at Los Angeles International Airport. Chi Mak and his wife were arrested at their home the same day.

A key piece of evidence was a to-do list of apparent intelligence targets, written in Chinese script. The note, which had been shredded, was retrieved from Chi Mak's garbage and painstakingly reassembled to reveal what prosecutors said were instructions from Beijing on the kinds of technology Mak should seek to acquire.

Mak, who testified in his defense at his six-week trial, denied he was a spy and said the information he copied was available from nonclassified sources on the Internet. Defense witnesses said that much, if not all, of the documents acquired by Mak were not officially classified, though transmitting them to China was prohibited under U.S. export laws. Mak's attorney, Ronald O. Kaye, said his client was a scapegoat for other U.S. intelligence failures and a "symbol of the government's cold war against the Chinese."

In another recent case, former Northrop Grumman scientist Noshir Gowadia, who helped build the B-2 bomber, was indicted last fall for allegedly sharing cruise missile data with the Chinese government during a half-dozen trips to China. He is scheduled to go on trial in October.

A defense lawyer for Gowadia did not return calls, but Gowadia's family in Hawaii has told local journalists that the charges stem from a misunderstanding.

Robert Clifton Burns, a Washington lawyer who specializes in export cases, said the Chinese acquisition of sophisticated U.S. technology "is fast coming out from under the radar" as authorities crack down on such shipments to foreign powers. But Burns, who closely tracks prosecutions in the area, said the government sometimes overstates the risks of exporting U.S. items.

"People who violate export laws should be thrown in jail, no question about it," Burns said. But he added that there are also people "who would be better addressed by . . . a civil result where they get a small fine."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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