By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The Boring Identity
An OC-based spy for communist China looked the part of a bumbling nerd
At a secret November 2005 meeting with U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service personnel, Dr. Yuri Khersonsky recalled that one of his former employees at an Anaheim-based defense contractor had "a strange personality." That man, an electrical engineer named Chi Mak, refused to bring a single piece of luggage when they traveled on business together. "He always wore the same set of clothes," said Khersonsky.
Did Mak, who possessed a secret security clearance for Pentagon projects, fear that American agents might hide GPS-tracking or listening devices in his luggage? Or was Mak simply a nerd unconcerned about hygiene? Whatever the answer, it's now clear that the befuddled-looking 67-year-old Power Paragon Inc. engineer with a perfect credit score and no criminal history had been a sleeper spy for decades.
In Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse on March 24, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney sentenced Mak to 24 years and five months in federal prison for attempting to export military technology to Beijing. Four Mak relatives—his wife, brother, sister-in-law and nephew—had previously confessed to their roles in the scheme and received jail sentences or probation. Federal agents busted the ring in October 2005 after Mak's relatives attempted to fly out of the country from LAX with computer disks encrypted with U.S. military data from Power Paragon.
Yet Mak didn't go quietly. He professed his innocence, love for this country and belief that he'll be vindicated someday. George Koo, a prominent California-based Chinese American business consultant, opined in a New America Media column that the real villains in the case are misguided FBI agents driven by unfounded hysteria. Mak's lawyer, Ronald O. Kaye of Pasadena, mocked federal prosecutors' inability to prove more serious espionage charges despite intense, invasive surveillance for 18 months.
"At trial, Mr. Mak described his goal of sharing the documents at issue as part of [an innocent] technical exchange" with researchers in his native China, Kaye wrote in his presentencing brief for Carney. "There is no evidence that Mr. Mak intended to harm the United States."
Federal authorities say such assertions are fanciful. "[Mak] was a longtime spy for the People's Republic of China [PRC] who devoted his life to helping the PRC improve its military capabilities," according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory W. Staples. "He gave away for free to a potential enemy information that cost the United States untold millions of dollars to develop."
If not quite as sensational a tale as the Robert Hansen affair (made into a recent movie starring Ryan Phillippe), Mak's case is instructive if for no other reason than it demonstrates the long-range patience of government-espionage programs. Staples believes, for example, that Mak began his life as a spy nearly 40 years ago while working in a Hong Kong tailor's shop frequented by American naval officers during the Vietnam War. Later, he moved to the U.S. without revealing his ties to Communist China. He worked first for commercial firms but eventually got jobs working for defense contractors.
Mak didn't land on the FBI radar until as late as 2004. Records contained in voluminous court files reviewed by the Weekly show that he traveled to the PRC or Hong Kong on average "every other year since 1980." A Hong Kong residency card, which Mak possessed, permitted travel from the former British colony to mainland China without leaving any trace on a U.S. passport.
Government officials aren't sure exactly what Mak—who had secret access to more than 200 U.S. Navy projects—may have given to Beijing over the decades, but they're alarmed about the potential damage. During the trial, naval expert Stephen Schreppler testified that the interiors of U.S. attack- and nuclear-submarine engine rooms are some of the most highly secret spaces in the world. Those are spaces Mak knew in detail. According to the record, Schreppler believes Mak may have given Communist military researchers a window into those very rooms.
That's educated speculation. Here's what isn't: Inside Mak's Downey home, FBI agents recovered a "ship book" that tracked U.S. warship movements in Hong Kong's harbor during the Vietnam War. They also found more current "task lists" they claim were sent to Mak from a Guangzhou operative named Mr. Pu Pei Liang and more than 1,000 pages of "responsive documents" marked "NOFORN," or not for foreign consumption.
None of that impressed Mak's defense attorney. Kaye called his client "trustworthy and honorable . . . a person of excellent character." He even argued for a relatively light prison sentence of 10 years, in part, because "at trial, every witness—including government witnesses who knew Mr. Mak personally—praised him as a human being." Kaye concluded, "Mr. Mak is not the nefarious anti-American who the government portrayed him to be."
How, then, to explain the Chinese message code sheet also found at Mak's home? The handwritten document gave the following instructions when communicating with an obscure Hong Kong e-mail address: the word "hospital" meant "something wrong"; "weather fine" meant "don't worry"; "weather uncomfortable" meant "please come back"; and "cinema" meant "retire." Furthermore, Mak's younger brother, Tai Mak, referred to himself as "Red Flower of North America" in overseas telephone conversations with Mr. Pu.