Prosecutors called Chi Mak the “perfect sleeper agent,” though he hardly looked the part. For two decades, the bespectacled Chinese-born engineer lived quietly with his wife in a Los Angeles suburb, buying a house and holding a steady job with a U.S. defense contractor, which rewarded him with promotions and a security clearance. Colleagues remembered him as a hard worker who often took paperwork home at night.
Eventually, Mak’s job gave him access to sensitive plans for Navy ships, submarines and weapons. These he secretly copied and sent via courier to China—fulfilling a mission that U.S. officials say he had been planning since the 1970s.
China called an ‘intellectual vacuum cleaner’
The Chinese government, in an enterprise that one senior official likened to an “intellectual vacuum cleaner,” has deployed a diverse network of professional spies, students, scientists and others to systematically collect U.S. know-how, the officials said. Some are trained in modern electronic techniques for snooping on wireless computer transactions. Others, such as Mak, are technical experts who have been in place for years and have blended into their communities.
“Chi Mak acknowledged that he had been placed in the United States more than 20 years earlier, in order to burrow into the defense-industrial establishment to steal secrets,” Joel Brenner, the head of counterintelligence for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in an interview. “It speaks of deep patience,” he said, and is part of a pattern.
Flurry of cases
The cases are among at least a dozen investigations of Chinese espionage that have yielded criminal charges or guilty pleas in the past year. Since 2000, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have launched more than 540 investigations of illegal technology exports to China.
The FBI recently heightened its counterintelligence operations against Chinese activities in the United States after Director Robert S. Mueller III cited “substantial concern” about aggressive attempts to use students, scientists and “front companies” to acquire military secrets.
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.
Industrial targets aplenty
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.
Family employed as couriers
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.
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.
Defense: These weren’t state secrets
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.