Space Shuttle secrets were among those allegedly stolen by a former California engineer. NASA photo.
There were secret meetings in restaurants, encrypted e-mail messages using a mysterious shorthand, suitcases crammed full of stolen documents.
There were covert payoffs: a pocket stuffed with a wad of bills, free poker games in Vegas, a wallet suddenly flush with cash.
There were bogus cover stories for trips to the “motherland” where secrets were passed and clandestine couriers who helped deliver materials into foreign hands.
If it all sounds very cloak and dagger, that’s because it is. Two cases worked by the FBI and its partners and brought to fruition Monday with four arrests on opposite coasts had all the intrigue of a good spy novel.
In the first investigation, a former Boeing and Rockwell engineer in California who had access to secret materials for decades was charged with several counts of economic espionage—including stealing U.S. high-tech trade secrets relating to the Space Shuttle and other aerospace and military systems and passing them to China.
The engineer allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of documents, many of which never made it to China. But he did provide China with some two dozen manuals on the B-1 Bomber and traveled to that country under of the guise of giving lectures, while secretly meeting with Chinese government officials and agents.
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In the second investigation, a weapons policy analyst at the Department of Defense—along with a New Orleans businessman and a Chinese national living in the U.S.—were charged with passing classified government materials to China. Much of the information related to the sale of military technology to Taiwan.
According to court documents, the New Orleans businessman cultivated the relationship with the analyst (and other U.S. government officials) and helped funnel information to the Chinese government. The Chinese national served as a “cut-out”—a go-between who worked with the businessman so an unnamed official in China could avoid direct contact with the analyst.
The Defense analyst’s series of secret meetings and telling conversations with the businessman—including admissions that he didn’t want to get caught and go to jail—are recounted in court documents.
How'd we catch these spies? By using our own set of tradecraft, including surveillance, court-authorized searches and wiretaps, extensive translation work, and close coordination with NASA, the Air Force, and other government agencies.
It all goes to show that while the Cold War is over, espionage is alive and well. Countries around the world are as determined as ever to steal our nation's sensitive military technologies and valuable trade secrets—even if that means resorting to traditional tricks like recruiting American turncoats.
You can help prevent espionage and potentially earn a reward of up to $500,000 by reporting suspicious activities. Contact the FBI field office nearest you and ask to speak with our Counterintelligence Domain Coordinator. Or submit an anonymous tip online.