(CNSNews.com) – With a message to Beijing to “stop sending your spies here,” a U.S. judge on Monday sentenced a Chinese-born former Boeing engineer to more than 15 years in prison for economic espionage and acting as an agent for China.
Although former Boeing engineer Dongfan Chung was convicted last July, his sentencing in the District Court in the Central District of California coincides with a rocky period in U.S.-China relations, amid disputes over Tibet, arms sales to Taiwan, Internet surveillance, and trade and climate change issues.
Sentencing Chung, 73, to 188 months in prison, Judge Cormac Carney said that he could not “put a price tag” on national security.
Carney presided over a 10-day trial which culminated last July in Chung, a naturalized U.S. citizen, being found guilty of acting as a foreign agent, conspiring to violate and violating the 1996 Economic Espionage Act, and making a false statement to the FBI.
He was found not guilty on one further charge, obstructing justice.
Chung moved to the U.S. in 1962 and was employed by Rockwell and then Boeing (which bought the latter’s defense and space unit in 1996) from 1973 onward. He worked on the space shuttle program and held a “secret” security clearance.
His arrest in 2006 came after federal agents searched his Orange County home and found more than 250,000 pages of documents relating to the space shuttle program, Boeing’s Delta IV military rocket -- designed to launch manned space vehicles -- and the C-17 strategic airlift plane among others.
The court found that Chung had acted as an agent for China for more than 30 years, providing information at the request of Chinese officials.
Documents before the court including a letter in which Chung indicated a desire to contribute to the “motherland” and its “four modernizations” program.
(Launched by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, the program aimed to make China a great economic power by the early 21st century, focusing on advances in the military, technology, industry and agriculture fields. Court documents said the program involved “efforts to acquire scientific information and technology from the West.”)
The case against Chung arose from an earlier one involving another Chinese-born engineer, Chi Mak, who is serving a 24 year sentence after being convicted in 2007 of sending sensitive defense data to China over many years.
In getting misappropriated information to the Chinese, Chung used methods such as mail and sea freight, as well as conduits including the Chinese consulate and Chi Mak.
He also visited China on numerous occasions, lecturing on space shuttle technology, and without reporting his travel or contacts with Chinese officials to his employers.
According to the trial judgment, he was advised to use cover stories for these visits, “such as traveling to Hong Kong, visiting relatives, or accompanying his wife to an arts academy” in China.
“The trust Boeing placed in Mr. Chung to safeguard its proprietary and trade secret information obviously meant very little to Mr. Chung,” Carney said when convicting him. “He cast it aside to serve the PRC [People’s Republic of China], which he proudly proclaimed as his ‘motherland.’”
Chung denied spying for China. In a handwritten letter submitted to the court ahead of sentencing, he claimed that he had only taken documents to work on at home, and that he had planned to use them to write a “technical book.”
He said the Chinese in the 1980s had been unable to make some important aircraft parts and had to buy them from other countries. Chung wrote that he had sent some “structural design manuals” to the Chinese to show them that Boeing made the best equipment, and to “convince them to buy our product,” rather than Russian or European ones.
“I love this country, my children and grandchildren all live here,” he wrote. “I beg your pardon, to let me to live with my family peacefully.”
‘Friends of China’
“Mr. Chung betrayed his adopted country and endangered our national security,” acting U.S. Attorney George Cardona said in a statement after the sentencing on Monday.
“This case demonstrates our resolve to protect the secrets that help protect the United States, as well as the important technological advancements developed by scientists working for companies that provide crucial support to our national security programs.”
Steven Martinez, FBI Assistant Director in Los Angeles, said the FBI and its partners were “committed to stopping those intent on stealing American technology, whether they are motivated by money or allegiance to their native country, as in the case of Mr. Chung.”
“The lengthy sentence imposed on Mr. Chung should send a strong message to others contemplating theft of U.S. secrets, that such criminal activity is a serious affront to the nation's stability and will be prosecuted accordingly.”
Chung’s sentencing was not widely reported in Chinese official media overnight, although the state-run English-language Global Times did carry an earlier story on the fact sentencing was expected shortly.
The daily quoted an academic attached to Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, Su Hao, as saying that since Chung was found guilty last year, this week’s developments would be unlikely to further exacerbate “deteriorating China-US relations.”
The 2009 annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) – a bipartisan panel created by Congress – says that multiple Chinese state entities are engaged in efforts to acquire restricted U.S. technologies.
“Unlike Russian intelligence officers looking to exploit ego, greed, or other personal weaknesses, Chinese intelligence personnel are more inclined to make use of sympathetic people willing to act as a ‘friend of China,’” the report states.
It quotes from a U.S. handbook on counterintelligence: “The crux of the PRC approach is not to try to exploit a perceived vulnerability but to appeal to an individual’s desire to help China out in some way … ethnic targeting to arouse feelings of obligation is the single most distinctive feature of PRC intelligence operations.”