A Chinese-born engineer stole trade secrets critical to the U.S. space program and passed them to China for three decades without detection, a federal prosecutor in Santa Ana said Tuesday during opening statements.
The non-jury proceeding against former Boeing Co. engineer Dongfan "Greg" Chung represents the first time an economic espionage case has reached trial in the United States.
Six similar cases have settled before trial since the Economic Espionage Act passed in 1996.
Chung has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, economic espionage, lying to federal agents, obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent. He is being tried in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Atty. Greg Staples said Chung, 73, gained the trust of Boeing and his previous employer, Rockwell International, and used his job as a stress analyst at the companies to steal more than 250,000 pages of sensitive documents.
The documents included trade secrets on a phased array antenna for the U.S. space shuttle and on the Delta IV booster rocket, according to government allegations.
"Information, security and betrayal: These are the three pillars of the government's case," Staples said. "Boeing builds things, but the crucial point in this case is, nothing gets built without information, the kind of information we're talking about.
"You can call it God or you can call it the devil, but it is success that is in the details, and it is the details that the government is going to show the defendant had in his house and collected for the PRC [People's Republic of China]," he said. "The details are the difference between getting into space and ending up with a plaything for children in a park."
Staples said that in some cases the stolen information outlined processes that seem mundane, such as documents on how to solder metal so it can withstand space travel.
"This seems trivial but it's not. Millions of lives depend on, 'Did you do the right job soldering?' " Staples said.
But Chung's defense attorney, Thomas Bienert, said the government was exaggerating the case. He said it would prove impossible for the government to tie his client to any wrongdoing after 2003. The defense says that's when the statute of limitations on the case ran out.
Bienert also downplayed the importance of what Chung allegedly took for the Chinese.
Bienert said the documents on phased array antennas, for example, examined how placing the equipment on the shuttle would affect its fuselage -- and had nothing to do with the spacecraft's radar and communications systems, as the government has implied.
"There simply will be no evidence that my client transferred any information to the People's Republic of China . . . much less anything that would be a trade secret," Bienert said.
Bienert also showed the judge pictures of his client's house with papers and books on every available surface, stacked on the floor and filling the bathtub. He said that explained why FBI agents found a quarter-million pages of Boeing documents there.
"What you're going to find is that my client is a pack rat," he said. "With all respect to my client, his house gives new meaning to clutter."
Chung worked for Rockwell International until it was bought by Boeing in 1996, and he remained with the aerospace giant until he was laid off in 2002.
He was brought back as a consultant after the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 and was fired when the FBI began its probe in 2006.
The government believes Chung began spying for the Chinese in the late 1970s, just a few years after he became a U.S. citizen and was hired by Rockwell.
In a letter cited in court documents, Chung allegedly explains to a Chinese contact that he sent three sets of volumes dealing with flight stress analysis to China via sea freight and also discusses what prosecutors say is his motive.
"Having been a Chinese compatriot for over thirty years and being proud of the achievements by the people's efforts for the motherland, I am regretful for not contributing anything," according to the letter to the contact at the Harbin Institute of Technology in northern China. "I would like to make an effort to contribute to the Four Modernizations of China."