Spy case patterns the Chinese style of espionage
One of the shredded documents the FBI says it recovered from Chi Mak's trash seemed to be a set of instructions. Machine printed, in Chinese, it urged Mr. Mak - an engineer for a California defense firm and a naturalized US citizen - to attend more seminars on special subject matters. It went on to list technologies of interest to its unnamed author, including torpedoes, aircraft-carrier electronics, and a "space-launched magnetic levitational platform."Skip to next paragraph
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The second document, also in Chinese, was handwritten. It was a list of nine related naval technologies, including ship propulsion - Mak's expertise.
Innocent notes, or evidence of something sinister? The latter, according to the FBI. Late on Oct. 28, agents burst into Mak's modest Downey, Calif., home and arrested him and his wife, Rebecca Laiwah Chiu. At the same time, agents detained Mak's brother, Tai Wang Mak, a Chinese national, as he waited at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Hong Kong.
Thus one month ago US officials rolled up what they allege to be a family spy ring, linked to the country some American officials call the most active collector of intelligence in the US today: the People's Republic of China.
China has spent more than two decades creating a large and varied intelligence infrastructure in the United States, according to US counterintelligence documents. High-profile prosecutions in recent years related to alleged Chinese espionage may merely hint at the depth and breadth of China's collection efforts.
It isn't a classical KGB-like operation, featuring dead drops and microfiche passed in the night. China's espionage style is unique, according to US law enforcement. It depends on a multitude of relative amateurs: Chinese students and visiting scientists, plus people of Chinese heritage living in the US.
Each individual may produce only a small bit of data. But collectively the network might vacuum up an extensive amount of sensitive military and economic information.
"To the extent we suffer losses against China, typically we suffer them day in and day out on a modest scale of operation," says Paul Moore, who was the FBI's chief China analyst for more than 20 years.
According to an affidavit filed in federal court late last month, Chi Mak was born in China. He and his wife became naturalized US citizens in Los Angeles in June 1985.
At the time of his arrest Mak worked as a principal support engineer at an Anaheim, Calif., defense firm named Power Paragon, leading an effort to develop a new electric-drive submarine propulsion system.
His brother Tai Mak is a Chinese citizen who entered the US legally on May 22, 2001. He works as broadcast and engineering director for Phoenix North American Chinese Channel, a satellite television service that provides Chinese-language programming in the United States.
Law-enforcement officials allege that Chi Mak took computer disks containing sensitive information from his workplace, and then passed the information to his brother, who duplicated it on his own disk in encrypted files.
Tai Mak was allegedly carrying this data when he was arrested Oct. 28.
An FBI agent has said in court documents that Chi Mak has admitted passing information to China for years.
However, the members of this purported family spy ring have not been charged with espionage. Rather, they've been indicted on a charge of being unregistered agents for a foreign government.
All three have pleaded not guilty. Ms. Chiu is free on a $300,000 bond. The Mak brothers have been denied bail.
An attorney for Tai Mak, John Early, told a judge at a hearing Monday that the FBI rushed forward with an incomplete case when it learned that Tai Mak and his wife were flying out of the country.
"The grandiose allegations suddenly seem smaller and smaller," said Mr. Early.
It's certainly true that in recent years the US government has run into trouble when prosecuting cases of alleged espionage involving China.
Six years ago the US accused Los Alamos National Lab scientist Wen Ho Lee of stealing nuclear secrets for China. He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of mishandling computer files. His case became a rallying point for many in the Chinese-American community who felt he was being targeted because of his ethnic heritage.