Tai Wang Mak dialed a phone number in Guangzhou, China. The man who answered, Pu Pei-liang, was a researcher at the Chinese Center for Asia Pacific Studies at Zhongshan University, known to U.S. intelligence officials as CAPS. “I’m with Red Flower of North America,” said Mak, a Chinese national working as an engineer in Los Angeles for Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television.
Mak said he would arrive in China in nine days. Pu instructed him to use a calling card to phone from the airport in Guangzhou so that he could be picked up. The call from California to China, placed Oct. 19, 2005, was intercepted by the long electronic ears of the U.S. National Security Agency. Mak’s reference to Red Flower of North America brought a breakthrough in a yearlong investigation into one of the most damaging losses of defense technology in American history.
Chinese spies used those code words to authenticate themselves when making contact with communist China’s intelligence bureaus. Other often-used code words include Winter Chrysanthemum and Autumn Orchid. U.S. intelligence knew that CAPS received funding from the People’s Liberation Army and conducted operational research for the Chinese military. The phone call revealed that CAPS had one of its most valuable spies inside the U.S. defense industrial system. Mak and Pu, investigators say, were undercover military intelligence officers with the Second Department of the People’s Liberation Army, the spy service well-known to U.S. counterspies as 2 PLA.
Investigators say Tai Mak’s brother, Chi Mak, headed a family spy ring in Los Angeles. After his Oct. 28 arrest by the FBI, Chi Mak, a naturalized citizen and electrical engineer with a major American defense contractor, told investigators that he had supplied sensitive Navy weapons secrets to the Chinese since 1983. The fact that the spy ring went undetected for two decades was a major counterintelligence failure. Worse, the U.S. government would go on to bungle the case.
R. James Woolsey, the former CIA director, has called the Constitution one of the best recruiting tools for intelligence services. His point is that those living under oppressive, dictatorial regimes sometimes will take incredible risks to step forward and secretly help in the battle for freedom and democracy. In fall 2004, the CIA recruited just such a source from China, a person within the military and security establishment. One of the first questions the CIA poses, in the jargon of the intelligence business, is “Who is picking our pockets?” The new source identified the spy ring in Los Angeles that investigators said was run by Chi Mak, an electrical engineer with the defense firm Power Paragon, a subsidiary of the Fortune 500 company known as L-3.
The source said the Chinese military was gaining sensitive technology and information on Navy warships. What’s more, China was buying ostensibly commercial goods and diverting them to the military. Under pressure to adopt a counterintelligence culture instead of a “cop” mentality, the FBI hoped to play the spy ring and see where it led. Counterintelligence is part art, part science, a discipline aimed at identifying and exploiting or stopping foreign spies. Law enforcement is easier: You identify the bad guys and arrest them. But the government mishandled the case. One problem was that the FBI and the CIA had conflicting goals. The CIA was afraid to lose its prized source, the Chinese recruit. The agency did not want the FBI to make arrests immediately, since swift action would alert the Chinese to a mole.
Investigators said Tai Mak, who worked for a producer of Chinese-language programming, served as a handler and courier for the spy ring. The investigation continued for about a year, until the NSA intercepted his “Red Flower” phone call in October 2005. Days later, on Oct. 28, the FBI arrested Chi Mak, 66, and his wife, Rebecca Laiwah Chiu, 63. Agents also arrested Tai Mak, 57, and his wife, Fuk Heung Li, 49, at Los Angeles International Airport as they prepared to travel to China. He was carrying disks on which were hidden encrypted files containing sensitive data on Navy technology. Many documents were labeled “proprietary” and “restricted,” meaning they could not be exported.
An FBI affidavit made a case for applying maximum charges against the four suspects — conspiracy to steal U.S. military information on restricted Navy warship technology, smuggling information to China in violation of export laws and theft of government property. “Chi Mak said that he knew that Mr. Pu was providing the information to members of the Chinese government’s science and technology community,” the affidavit said. The FBI produced the affidavit to secure arrest warrants for the Mak brothers and their wives, as well as search warrants for their homes, workplaces and vehicles. Having spent a year conducting electronic surveillance, investigators believed the searches would uncover classified data and other information that would lead to more serious espionage charges.
Judges underscored the seriousness of the charges by denying bail for the Mak brothers. One judge told Chi Mak’s lawyer: “You’re talking about billions of dollars of technology that puts our country at serious risk.” Chi Mak, a specialist in electrical power, received a secret-level security clearance in 1996. The document trail led investigators to conclude that he passed information that will allow Beijing to track the Pentagon’s new Virginia class-attack submarine, which uses L-3 technology. The compromised technology also will enable the Chinese to develop countermeasures against the submarine and to copy its electronic systems.
Investigators believe he gave China schematics and design information on the latest generation of Aegis weapons systems, which L-3 helped to develop. Aegis — meaning shield — is being upgraded to become America’s most advanced and mobile anti-missile system for use on guided-missile cruisers, guided-missile destroyers, Sea Wolf-class submarines and aircraft carriers. Chi Mak worked on four classified Navy contracts related to Aegis. Investigators believe his spy ring was the main supplier of Aegis technology to China and, one U.S. defense official says, the Chinese quickly incorporated it into their Luyang II guided-missile destroyer.
By the time formal indictments were issued Nov. 15, the most serious charges against Chi Mak and the three others had been dropped. Tai Mak’s wife was excluded altogether, though she was charged separately with running an illegal marriage-fraud network that helped immigrants gain entry into the United States. The three remaining suspects were indicted on relatively minor charges of failing to register as foreign agents. The initial charges could have resulted in prison terms of up to 25 years, but the lesser charges carried maximum sentences of 10 years. Chi Mak, his wife and Tai Mak all pleaded not guilty. So what changed? U.S. government sources say that petty squabbling between prosecutors and investigators jeopardized the case. The more serious charges were dropped because the FBI counterintelligence team that conducted the investigation got into a dispute with the U.S. attorneys in Los Angeles who were in charge of the prosecution.
The FBI fully expected that search warrants would unearth classified data, so prosecutors balked when much of what was found was not officially classified as secret. “Nothing I passed [to China] was classified,” Chi Mak told investigators shortly after his arrest. He was right. Investigators say the lack of classified documents revealed that the spies had done their homework. Chinese intelligence-gathering services exploited the fact that Navy officials underclassified some of the most sensitive information about weapons systems to make it easier for private defense contractors to use the data. “There is no question that this case has caused serious damage to U.S. national security,” one investigator said.
Espionage laws are so difficult to apply that prosecutors almost need a confession to be able to make their case. The current statute, enacted in 1917, requires prosecutors to prove “intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” This standard often forces the release of intelligence or defense information to prove national security was harmed. David Szady, head of FBI counterintelligence until this year, said loss of sensitive-yet-unclassified information can do real harm to national security. The technology passed to China in the Mak case was proprietary corporate trade secrets or export-controlled, but did not carry the “secret” or “top-secret” label. Chi Mak had access to Connecticut-based submarine manufacturer Electric Boat, for example, as if he were one of their own employees, Szady said.
The case “probably murdered the Navy” because of the loss of technology, he said. Obtaining contract documents not only will allow Beijing to build its own version of one of the Navy’s developmental warships, the DD(X) destroyer, but possibly to “sell it in competition to us,” Szady said. The Chinese, he said, are good at positioning agents who can obtain advanced technology in the developmental stage, before it is classified.” The [spy] business is getting more complex, more subtle,” Szady said. “It’s smarter business than the old cloak-and-dagger.”