updated 3/28/2007 6:29:09 PM ET 2007-03-28T22:29:09

A Chinese-American engineer at a major defense contractor went on trial Wednesday on charges that he stole information on U.S. military technology for two decades to send to China.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Staples painted Chi Mak as a longtime agent who had been sending sensitive material to China since 1983, two years before he became a U.S. citizen. Federal agents asked Mak why he did it, the prosecutor said in his opening argument.

“The answer was very simple. The defendant said, ‘I wanted to help China,”’ Staples said.

Mak, 66, whose lawyers say he is a devoted American who would never harm his country, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to export U.S. defense secrets to China, possession of property in aid of a foreign government and failure to register as a foreign agent. If convicted, he could get more than 50 years in prison.

Prosecutors allege he used his position at Anaheim defense contractor Power Paragon to steal advanced naval technology.

Staples told the jury investigators arrested Mak’s brother and the brother’s wife in October 2005 at Los Angeles International Airport as they prepared to travel to Hong Kong. A CD-ROM hidden in a book they were carrying contained Chinese folk songs, homework from Mak’s nephew and an encrypted copies of documents about a submarine propulsion system, authorities have said.

According to court documents, investigators found in Mak’s home restricted documents on the experimental destroyer known as the DD(X) and lists in Chinese asking him for information about torpedoes, electromagnetic artillery systems and technology used to detect incoming missiles.

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