July 16, 2009 / 6:52 PM / 10 years ago

Ex-Boeing engineer guilty in space shuttle spy case

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A former Boeing engineer was convicted on Thursday of passing space shuttle secrets to the Chinese government in the United States’ first economic espionage trial.

Space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Scott Audette

A federal judge who heard the 10-day trial in Santa Ana, California, without a jury convicted 73-year-old Dongfan “Greg” Chung of economic espionage and of acting as an agent for the People’s Republic of China.

“Mr. Chung has been an agent of the People’s Republic of China for over 30 years,” U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney said in a 31-page written verdict.

“The trust Boeing placed in Mr. Chung to safeguard its proprietary and trade secret information obviously meant very little to Mr. Chung,” Carney wrote. “He cast it aside to serve the PRC, which he proudly proclaimed to be his ‘motherland.’ The court must now hold Mr. Chung accountable for his crimes.”

Chung, a Chinese-born naturalized U.S. citizen who was free on $250,000 bail during the trial, was jailed after the verdict and faces a maximum penalty of 90 years in prison when he is sentenced on November 9.

Chung is the first defendant convicted at trial since the Economic Espionage Act became law in 1996, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department said. Five other cases have either been settled in plea bargains or are still pending.

AGENTS SEIZE 300,000 PAGES

Chung was arrested on September 11, 2006, after federal agents searching his home found more than 300,000 pages of sensitive documents relating to the space shuttle, Delta IV rocket, F-15 fighter, B-52 bomber, CH-46/47 Chinook helicopter and other aerospace and military technologies.

They also discovered letters, lists and journals detailing Chung’s communications with the officials in China.

“As federal agents sifted through the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents in Mr. Chung’s home, the story of Mr. Chung’s secret life became clear. He was a spy for the PRC,” Carney wrote.

Chung, who was born in China, moved to Taiwan in 1948 and to the United States in 1962, becoming a naturalized citizen, spent most of his 30-year career as a stress analyst on the forward fuselage section of the space shuttle.

He was hired by Rockwell International in 1973 before moving to Boeing. He retired in 2002 but following the 2003 crash of the Columbia orbiter returned as a contractor, and was still working at the time of his arrest.

“Mr. Chung stole restricted technology for the benefit of a foreign nation and as a result he has lost the freedom he was offered by this nation,” U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien said after the verdict.

“The stolen technology compromised not only the American company that developed and owned the trade secrets but national security as well because the secrets could be used by the PRC to develop its own military technology.”

Defense lawyers conceded during the trial, which ended on June 24, that their client was a “pack rat” who had hoarded documents at his Orange County home but said he did not pass any classified information to the Chinese government.

An attorney for Chung said he would appeal the verdict.

A Boeing spokesman said the aerospace company had cooperated fully with the investigation and “shares the government’s interest in preventing the theft and misuse of its proprietary data.”

Editing by Doina Chiacu

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