One of the shredded documents the FBI says it recovered from Chi Mak's trash seemed to be a set of instructions. Machine printed, in Chinese, it urged Mr. Mak - an engineer for a California defense firm and a naturalized US citizen - to attend more seminars on special subject matters. It went on to list technologies of interest to its unnamed author, including torpedoes, aircraft-carrier electronics, and a "space-launched magnetic levitational platform."
The second document, also in Chinese, was handwritten. It was a list of nine related naval technologies, including ship propulsion - Mak's expertise.
Innocent notes, or evidence of something sinister? The latter, according to the FBI. Late on Oct. 28, agents burst into Mak's modest Downey, Calif., home and arrested him and his wife, Rebecca Laiwah Chiu. At the same time, agents detained Mak's brother, Tai Wang Mak, a Chinese national, as he waited at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Hong Kong.
Thus one month ago US officials rolled up what they allege to be a family spy ring, linked to the country some American officials call the most active collector of intelligence in the US today: the People's Republic of China.
China has spent more than two decades creating a large and varied intelligence infrastructure in the United States, according to US counterintelligence documents. High-profile prosecutions in recent years related to alleged Chinese espionage may merely hint at the depth and breadth of China's collection efforts.
It isn't a classical KGB-like operation, featuring dead drops and microfiche passed in the night. China's espionage style is unique, according to US law enforcement. It depends on a multitude of relative amateurs: Chinese students and visiting scientists, plus people of Chinese heritage living in the US.
Each individual may produce only a small bit of data. But collectively the network might vacuum up an extensive amount of sensitive military and economic information.
"To the extent we suffer losses against China, typically we suffer them day in and day out on a modest scale of operation," says Paul Moore, who was the FBI's chief China analyst for more than 20 years.
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