Monday, July 23, 2007

The Enemy Within

Monday's edition of USA Today highlights China's full-court espionage assault on the United States, as illustrated by the case of Chi Mak, the former engineer who passed sensitive defense information to the PRC. Mak was convicted last week of conspiracy, two counts of attempting to violate export control laws and failing to register as a foreign agent. He could receive up to 45 years in prison at his sentencing later this year.

According to federal prosecutors, Mak ran a family spy ring for more than a decade, using his position as a defense contractor to acquire sensitive information and pass it to his handlers in China. At the time of his arrest, Mak worked for Power Paragon, a major defense firm in Southern California. During his time at the firm, Mak copied research data on the Navy's effort to develop a 'quiet drive" system for submarines, making them harder to detect.

At least four other members of Mak's family have been implicated in the plot. His wife, Rebecca, pleaded guilty to charges of not registering as a foreign agent, and is facing up to three years in prison. Mak's bother, Tai Mak, who was arrested as he tried to smuggle encrypted disks out of the country, also entered a guilty plea (on charges of conspiring to export defense articles) and could receive a 10-year prison sentence. Tai Mak's wife and son have also pleaded guilty to other charges related to the case, and a family "friend"--Boeing engineer Greg Chung--is under investigation for allegedly passing information to the Mak clan, for transmission to the PRC.

We've been writing about the Mak family for over a year. At one point, we suggested that the Mak ring might become the "next big spy scandal," but the case never quite reached that level. For one thing, the government had to backtrack on its original claim that Mak and his clan passed classified information to the PRC, later describing the information as "sensitive." Likewise, an FBI affidavit described the Maks as "foreign intelligence operatives," but espionage charges were never filed in the case.

But the lack of an espionage indictment doesn't mean that Mak wasn't a spy. FBI agents found a technology "shopping list" during a search of Mak's home, along with more than 900 documents on various defense technologies, and letters of introduction from an official in Beijing, written in the 1980s. A similar letter was found in Chung's home, advising him to "pass information through Mr. Mak. This channel is much safer than others."

So why did prosecutors take a pass on espionage charges? As the article suggests, federal officials are still gun-shy from the 1999 Wen Ho Lee case. Lee, a Chinese-American engineer, was originally accused of stealing nuclear warhead designs through his position at Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the case against Lee unraveled, and he eventually pleaded guilty to only one count of mishandling classified information and was released from jail. Against that legal backdrop--and without hard evidence that he actually passed classified information--prosecutors elected to file lesser charges against the Mak family.

According to USA Today, a serious blunder by agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) also hampered the feds' case. Two days after his arrest, Chi Mak reportedly told the NCIS that he had been passing information to Beijing since 1983. Incredibly, the agents did not make a video or audio recording of their interrogation session, and Mak later recanted his confession.

Fact is, we may never know the scope of Mak's activities on behalf of the PRC. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1995, and obtained a "Secret" level security clearance a decade later. The FBI didn't begin its investigation until 2004, so there was ample opportunity for Mak to obtain--and pass--classified data to his handlers.

Using operatives like Mak, Beijing can shave years of development time--and billions of dollars --in fielding new military systems. The FBI estimates that the number of counter-intelligence cases involving the PRC has jumped 12% in recent years, and that's probably a conservative number.

Remember, that figure is based on the number of investigations and prosecutions actually conducted. For every Mak family that is actually caught by the counter-intel dragnet, there are thousands of operatives who "fly beneath the radar," using their positions to access information that is coveted by the PRC. Bill Gertz's recent best-sellers "The China Threat" and "Enemies," offer a sobering look at the scope of Beijing's spy efforts; the classic "Year of the Rat" reminds us that Beijing's efforts to gain information (and influence) were also targeted at the highest levels of American government.


Dymphna said...

The Chinese are very good at this. They make jihadists look like little boys -- little boys with rage problems, but boys nonetheless, at least in comparison to the Inscrutable Ones.

Maybe it's genetic, but there has always been a sense that Americans are too open to ever be "clever" but maybe we could start down that road by raising our standards for security clearance requirements.

If a foreign-born person may not sit in the Oval Office, why should a foreign-born person be trusted with sensitive material? Would that be ruled unconstitutional?

What surprises me is that the Chinese are insecure enough to be compelled to spy on us.OTOH, they don't care if they lose a few along the way. Plenty more where the Maks come from.

Admittedly I don't read the MSM and don't have a TV but you're the first mention I've seen of the Mak family.

I don't worry about Chinese ascendancy. Yes, they're paranoid, xenophobic, and want to dominate but the social and political structures of Chinese society are so warped that they'll always be several steps behind the rest of the world --which will simply reinforce the qualities that make them second rate.

It would take a *real* revolution to put them on a more level playing field with the West. Of course they do have that humungous cohort of single men who have no hope of ever marrying (in a society that values family and children). So maybe they'll sic them on the rest of us.

Here's a real synthesis of ugly threat: a Chinese jihad.

Unknown said...

Dymphna--I don't think China's spying is motivated by insecurity, but rather, by convenience. If you're trying to play catch-up militarily, it's far easier to close the gap by copying your adversary's technology, saving years of time and billions of R&D dollars in the process.

Your comments about tightening security clearance requirements for foreign-born tech workers and naturalized citizens are spot-on. China is producing more engineers than any other country on earth, and a fair number are trained at American universities. And, with fewer native-born Americans opting for engineering careers (thanks in part to our wonderful government schools), defense firms and other high-tech companies are snapping up those foreign-born engineers, who gain access to sensitive and classified data.

Finally, I agree with your comment about the ultimate deterrent to Chinese ascendancy--their failed political system. Without fostering individual initiative and personal freedom, you wind up with a society that's good a producing things, but a failure at actually creating them. The same holds true on the battlefield. The PRC is spending billions on high-tech weapons, but without an accompanying revolution in tactics, that hardware will never be utilized to its full potential.

On the other hand, the Chinese may not need to finish the process. Under a Democratic president, we will execute a hasty retreat from Iraq, which Beijing will interpret as a sign of fatal weakness. Under that scenario, China could well make a move towards Taiwan, betting that the U.S. would not honor its non-binding commitment to defend the island. And they'd probably be right. Can you envision Hillary, Obama or Edwards rushing to defend Taiwan?

With Taiwan in the bag (and the U.S in retreat), Beijing becomes the power player in the Pacific, with enormous regional and global implications.

BTW, Gates of Vienna is one of my favorite blogs. Keep up the good work.