SANTA ANA, California, AP
As a top engineer at a major U.S. defense contractor, Chi Mak helped develop some of the most advanced and closely guarded naval technology in the world, including silent-running propulsion systems that can make submarines virtually undetectable.
Now, in a case that experts say could have serious implications for U.S. security, he is accused of stealing those secrets for the Chinese.
Prosecutors say the Chinese-born Mak was working for China from 1983 until his arrest two years ago, stealing hundreds of documents about a number of defense systems, including the weapons, nuclear reactors and propulsion systems aboard U.S. submarines.
The 66-year-old Mak is set to go on trial Tuesday 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. He could get more than 50 years in prison if convicted.
If the allegations are true, China may have gained critical information as it tries to develop an open water fleet to challenge U.S. naval supremacy in Asia, said Richard Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Alexandria, Virginia.
“China’s military capabilities would benefit tremendously from the kind of inside information that he’s had access to,” Fisher said. “If the Chinese are on the inside track on this one, then we are truly in an arms race.”
The case is also troubling because the U.S. government might have to declassify evidence and present it to jurors to prove its case.
“This is the bad choice the government faces,” said Paul D. Moore, who served for more than 20 years as the FBI’s chief China analyst. “There are a number of people running around the United States who have committed espionage and gotten away with it because the government couldn’t afford to lose the information they needed to prove the case.”
In similar cases, prosecutors withhold evidence deemed too sensitive. Other times, they obtain special security clearances for the judge, jurors and defense attorneys to look at certain classified documents. But the bulk of the evidence must be aired in open court.
Prosecutors in the Mak case did not return calls for comment. Defense attorneys have undergone FBI background checks and received clearance to see certain government evidence.
Mak, a U.S. citizen since 1985, had secret clearance for a decade through his work with Power Paragon, an Anaheim-based subsidiary of the U.S.’s sixth-largest defense company, L-3 Communications.
His attorney, Ronald Kaye, said the government has grossly exaggerated the evidence against his client. He said Mak would never do anything to hurt his adopted country.
“You have a highly regarded 66-year-old engineer who universally is seen as a great asset to our country. He’s been a U.S. citizen for over 20 years. He’s a homeowner,” Kaye said. “Every person you turn to says he’s the most generous, committed engineer in the company.”
According to prosecutors, Mak took documents from Power Paragon, copied them to computer disks and encrypted them with the help of his brother, Tai Mak, and nephew, Billy Mak, before trying to pass them to a Chinese contact known as “Mr. Pu.”
Tai Mak and his wife, Fuk Heung Li, were arrested in 2005 at the Los Angeles airport as they were about to fly to China.
Hidden in their luggage were encrypted disks containing copies of documents on a submarine propulsion system, according to court papers.
The propulsion technology suppresses noise to make submarines virtually undetectable underwater and is “one of the biggest secrets that we have in developments in submarine technology and anti-submarine warfare,” Moore said.
Chi Mak was arrested several days later. During a search of his home, investigators found two torn-up notes asking him to get documents on a number of sensitive U.S. naval projects involving torpedoes, electromagnetic artillery, missile-detection and nuclear defense, according to court papers.
Investigators also seized documents on the DDX Destroyer, a next-generation, multi mission warship as quiet as a submarine; electromagnetic launch systems for aircraft carriers; high-powered electromagnetic guns; and submarine-mounted kinetic energy projectiles, the court papers say.
The government also said it suspects Mak has been feeding information about Aegis-class battleships to China since the 1980s.
Investigators tapped the Maks’ phones and installed video cameras in their homes. In one instance, Tai Mak allegedly called his Chinese contact and identified himself as being with the “Red Flower of North America,” which the FBI believes is code for a Chinese intelligence operation.
Li, Tai Mak, Billy Mak and Rebecca Laiwah Chiu, the wife of Chi Mak, have all pleaded not guilty to the same charges as Chi Mak and await trial
Kaye explained Chi Mak’s behavior by saying, “My client is committed to discussing and learning about technology — that’s all.”