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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

"Proving someone is a foreign agent is a hard thing to do," says Mr. Christie, now a partner at McCarter and English, a law firm in Newark, N.J.

However, in the case of Chung, the government apparently had no difficulty. Especially damaging was a letter from an official at the Chinese Ministry of Aviation who asked Chung for specific information about planes and the Space Shuttle. The FBI found letters from 1979 giving Chung "tasks" to collect data on civilian and military aircraft. In one undated letter, Chung answered, "I would like to make an effort to contribute to the Four Modernizations of China."

It's not clear how much damage Chung has done.

"The prevailing view of the Chinese style of espionage is that they are not in a position to acquire big secrets and even if they were, they couldn't do anything with them," says John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org , a research group in Washington. Mr. Pike says the gap between the US and Chinese is simply "unbridgeable" at this point. "The Chinese really are, no kidding, stuck in 1982."

He says the proof would be if the Chinese military has improved since it received the information. "Have they made any significant advances beyond what would have been expected? Not that I can detect."

However, Kingstone believes the Chinese can be ruthlessly efficient.

He had a company called Super Vision International (now known as Nexxus Lighting), which made high-tech fiber optic lighting cable and displays. A Chinese company stole his trade secrets and almost bankrupted his firm. He ultimately won a $52 million judgment against the company. He wrote a book, The Real War Against America, about his ordeal.

That may be why he says, "I hope they lock Chung up for life."

Chung could face over 100 years in prison when he is sentenced on November 9. Mr. Christie says one of the sentencing factors is whether he affected national security.

"That appears to fit factually with this case," he says. "That, among other issues, could be a cause to ask the sentencing judge to consider a harsher than normal sentence."

The Pentagon and the FBI had no comment. Chung's lawyers did not respond.

Monitor staff writer Gordon Lubold contributed to this report.

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