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Why did it take so long to catch spy for China?

For 27 years, a Boeing engineer sent documents on military projects to Beijing. He's been convicted, but the extent of the damage may never be known.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2009

In this Feb 19, 2008 file photo, Dongfan "Greg" Chung, 72, is shown leaving the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Calif., with an unidentified woman. On Thursday, Mr. Chung became the first person to be tried and convicted under the Economic Espionage Act, which was passed more than a decade ago.

Christina House/The Orange County Register/AP/File


New York

It almost seems like a Hollywood spy movie: A Boeing engineer takes secret documents and places them inside his newspaper to take home at night. After 27 years, the FBI finally catches on and searches the engineer's garbage. This leads to a search of his home where the agents find 250,000 pages of documents, some hidden in a crawl space under the house.

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But, it wasn't a movie.

It was the life of Dongfan "Greg" Chung, an engineer who worked as a secret agent for the People's Republic of China, stealing secret information about NASA's Space Shuttle program and the Delta IV rocket.

According to the US Justice Department, Mr. Chung sent 24 manuals relating to the B-1 Bomber. In fact, name a Rockwell/Boeing program – from the F-15 to the B-52 to the Chinook helicopter – and information about it was sent to the PRC.

On Thursday, Chung, a naturalized US citizen, was found guilty of economic espionage and spying.

US officials say Chung's actions not only hurt Boeing but also US national security more than can be fully known.

The case also raises questions about why it took so long for federal officials to finally snare Chung and his trove of secret information. And, experts on Chinese espionage say the case is not unique.

"There are over 3,500 operatives in the US masquerading as students or on H1B visas [special work visas] for the sole purpose of getting jobs in American manufacturing or defense industries for the sole purpose of stealing secrets for the Chinese government," says Brett Kingstone, who lectures nationally on behalf of the FBI and defense contractors.

However, it is relatively rare for such cases to actually go to trial because often top officials do not want to be placed in the position of having to testify. And, it can also be hard to actually prove spying.

"The government would love to do more of these cases but for the proof issues," says Scott Christie, a former federal prosecutor who has litigated computer hacking and intellectual property offenses.