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Sleeper Agent

The Chi Mak case and Chinese espionage in the United States

By Thomas Boghardt, November 2008

The bespectacled 67-year-old engineer certainly didn't look much of a spy. Yet Chi Mak's case is emblematic of the gravest espionage threats the United States is currently facing—those from the People's Republic of China (PRC). In the course of his trial, Mak acknowledged coming to the United States in the 1970s "in order to burrow into the defense-industrial establishment to steal secrets." This he did with great skill and extraordinary patience. Having settled in Southern California, Mak became a naturalized citizen in 1985 and subsequently accepted a job with defense contractor Power Paragon, specializing in naval propulsion technology. With the help of his wife, Mak photocopied thousands of pages of sensitive documents and gave them to his brother who passed them along to PRC officials. In 2005, the FBI busted the family spy ring by catching Mak's brother red-handed at Los Angeles International Airport,securing a disk with encrypted sensitive material. In 2008, Mak was found guilty and sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison. The judge intended the harsh sentence as a warning to China not to "send agents here to steal America's military secrets." That may be wishful thinking. The PRC is interested in both military and civilian technological secrets and employs a diverse network of professional spies, students, and scientists. Since 2000, U.S. authorities have launched more than 540 investigations of illegal technology exports to China. One U.S. official described the broadness of Chinese espionage in the United States as an "intellectual vacuum cleaner." In selecting and training their spies, the PRC displays great patience. Like Mak, agents are often developed over many years. PRC spy handlers also make good use of the fact that members of the far-flung Chinese diaspora in the United States usually retain a degree of attachment to China. Likewise, defections from Chinese intelligence are extremely rare since the "collective blood guarantee" ensures that "all family members and relatives of the defector must share responsibility for defection, and will receive extremely cruel punishment," says Stanislav Lunev, a former Russian military intelligence officer specializing in China. The leverage PRC officials wield over the U.S.-based Chinese diaspora, and the loyalty conflict immigrants may develop, pose a serious challenge to U.S. counterintelligence. "Dual loyalty is a problem we haven't seen on such a scale since the Revolution," says Joel Brenner, the U.S. intelligence community's top counterintelligence officer. Mak, it seems, was never able to sort out his competing loyalties. When sentenced for espionage, Mak told the judge: "I never intended to hurt this country. I love this country."