China’s efforts to use spying to gain U.S. military technology will get a close look during the trial of a Chinese-born defense contractor set to begin today near Los Angeles.
Chi Mak, an electrical engineer who worked on some of the U.S. Navy’s most sensitive high-tech weapons, goes on trial in a federal court in Santa Ana, Calif., on charges of conspiracy to export U.S. defense secrets to China, possession of property in aid of a foreign government and failure to register as a foreign agent.
Federal law-enforcement and counterintelligence officials said the case against Mr. Mak and four others is one of the most significant Chinese intelligence-gathering cases in recent years after a string of failed China-spying cases. The FBI has come under fire for mishandling the 1999 case of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, and the 2003 case of Los Angeles businesswoman Katrina Leung, who officials say spied for China while posing as an FBI informant.
Prosecutors plan to show that Mr. Mak and his brother Tai Mak were part of a ring that passed sensitive Navy technology to China through a military-funded research institute in Guangzhou.
Officials said that in 2001, Chi Mak gave his brother key details of the Navy’s SPY-1 phased array radar, the heart of the Aegis battle management system used on almost all Navy warships. Tai Mak, a Phoenix Television engineer, was described by officials as a courier who passed the technology to China.
Chi Mak also was involved in developing the Navy’s Quiet Electric Drive, a stealth-related technology for the next generation of warships. The Maks were arrested in October 2005 as, officials say, they sought to pass the drive technology to China. Chi Mak also is thought to have compromised the Navy’s newest attack submarine, the Virginia class, by providing China with details of its onboard electrical system, which would make it easier for China to track the submarine.
Investigators say Chi Mak told them after his arrest that he supplied information to Pu Pei-liang, a researcher at the military-funded Chinese Center for Asia Pacific Studies (CAPS) at Zhongshan University.
Dave Szady, the FBI’s chief counterspy until last year, said recently that the data in Mak case was mainly proprietary corporate trade secrets or export-controlled data and that the case “probably murdered the Navy” because of the loss of military technology. Chi Mak could wander the submarine manufacturer Electric Boat “as if he was one of their own,” Mr. Szady said.
Both Maks were born in Guangzhou. Chi Mak was naturalized a U.S. citizen in 1985. Tai Mak still holds a Hong Kong passport, though he emigrated from there in 2001. FBI and Navy investigators concluded that Mr. Pu was the handler for a technology theft ring that included Chi Mak, Tai Mak, their wives and Tai Mak’s son. The family members will be tried separately.
Key evidence for prosecutors is two task lists thought to be from Mr. Pu that were discovered during a search of Chi Mak’s trash on Feb. 7, 2005. The shredded documents in Chinese revealed that Beijing directed Chi Mak to gather military technology, including a new electromagnetic launcher to be used on a future U.S. aircraft carrier. Documents related to the list were found in Chi Mak’s home.
The case has been difficult for prosecutors, who were forced to back off spy charges after home searches uncovered mostly sensitive but unclassified weapons information that, although restricted for export, was not classified as secret or top-secret in order to make it easier for contractors to work on the weapons systems.
Chi Mak has pleaded not guilty. His attorney Ronald Kaye is expected to focus on the case involving no classified documents. He told the Associated Press that the government has exaggerated the evidence. U.S. officials said defense attorneys unsuccessfully tried to interview Mr. Pu and other Chinese officials.
Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center said the case shows how China targets U.S. military technology.
“This case is a perfect illustration of China’s racist policy of recruiting Chinese-Americans to undermine the security of all other Americans,” Mr. Fisher said.