China's Espionage Threat

When we think of espionage we tend to think in terms of Europe, Central Europe in particular, the bleak, dark cityscapes of Berlin and Vienna, the border cities of the Cold War. The Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, clandestine meets in the shadow of the Prater or the Brandenburg Gate.

David Wise thinks we desperately need to add an Eastern perspective to our thinking on espionage. Judging from the evidence presented in his new book, Tiger Trap:America's Secret Spy War with China, he's far from mistaken.

China is undoubtedly the biggest espionage threat this country now faces. The Chinese, for cultural and historical reasons, don't view espionage, either purpose or technique, the way we do.  Whereas Americans (and Russians too) think in terms of targets against which distinct operations are planned and carried out, the Chinese, according to Wise, view the process as putting together a mosaic, of gathering small pieces of information to construct an overall picture.  What the Chinese do is send out thousands of tourists, officials, and agents to pick up whatever they can (Wise compares the process to analyzing the sands of a beach -- each returns to China with a single grain of sand).  

Needless to say, the PRC does not overlook ethnic Chinese who have settled in foreign countries, particularly the United States.  The Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) constantly recruits in overseas Chinese communities, often pleading with potential recruits to "help" the mother country, which remains poor and vulnerable.  These requests often don't match our preconceptions concerning "espionage" as such, comprising as they do the search for that one single sand-grain of information that will fill out the overall mosaic.

Misunderstanding of the Chinese intelligence mindset has led to serious failings in U.S. counterintelligence efforts. Wise recounts disaster after disaster in the recent decades.

  • In operation Tiger Trap, which give the book its title, both of the FBI's leading West Coast counterintelligence agents were sleeping with one of China's major U.S. assets, Katrina Leung, who provided massive amounts of information to China while also building a lucrative personal financial empire. She effectively walked when a judge -- a Clinton appointee, naturally enough -- chose to interpret a badly-drafted plea-bargaining passage as "prosecutorial misconduct". (Wise strongly implies -- though he does not state outright -- that at least one of the FBI agents was cooperating fully with Leung. He walked too.)
  • The Wen Ho Lee case, probably the only name most readers will readily recognize, in which Lee's life was disrupted and his career virtually destroyed before it was discovered that the classified material in question -- concerning the W-88 Trident warhead -- didn't come from his workplace at Los Alamos at all but very likely from within the Pentagon.
  • The Jeff Wang case, in which a bogus tip resulted in the perfectly innocent Wang being targeted as a Chinese agent. Although he was at last cleared, the case also resulted in the firing of the one of the FBI's most promising Chinese-American agents, Denise Woo, a family friend of Wang's who saw that he was innocent and tried to persuade her superiors of the fact. (It turned out that Wang had been targeted by a leading Chinese informant, a relative of Wang's who wanted revenge for a family misunderstanding. The Chinese community tends to be very tightly knit.)
  • The Anubis case, involving Wen Ning, a Chinese diplomat who had served the FBI well for years as an agent-in-place. After he settled in the U.S., it developed that Wen and his wife had a business on the side -- smuggling advanced computer chips to the PRC. Technically, this is not a case involving a double agent as much as a man who seen his opportunities and took 'em.

That's only the beginning -- the sad stories go on and on. The best that can be said about most of these operations is that they are not the FBI's finest hour. (Though to be fair, we do get to see a few successful operations - but by no means enough.)

This is scarcely acceptable.  China is certain to be our major adversary for a good long period of the upcoming century. We have a lot to learn about China's plans, goals, and its methods of achieving them. Tiger Trap serves as a fine introduction. Reading it is a recommended first step.

As a side note, I find the book's structure very interesting. Rather than a strict chronological account, Wise uses the Leung saga as a framework, telling the story in alternate chapters while devoting the other  chapters to background and related or contemporary incidents. It's an original and illuminating technique, of a kind that's rarely encountered in non-fiction. I'd like to see more of this kind of thing.



J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker. He is the author of Death by Liberalism, dismissed by Frank Rich as a "demented right wing screed."