For decades during the Cold War, the most captivating spy-vs.-spy battle was the one waged between Moscow and Washington. With the rise of China, a new player has entered the game. These days, it seems, not a month goes by without an intelligence case involving alleged Chinese spies stealing American industrial secrets, or reports that China tried to pay an American to join the CIA, or Chinese hackers (perhaps from the government) breaking into the Gmail accounts of U.S. officials and human rights activists. Move over U.S.S.R., China is America’s espionage enemy No. 1.
But, as David Wise concludes in his new book, “Tiger Trap,” the federal agencies arrayed to protect the United States have handled the threat with astounding incompetence.
The author of bestsellers on spies and counterspies, Wise is a master of page-turning nonfiction, and from that perspective “Tiger Trap” doesn’t disappoint. His book paints a sobering, sometimes pathetic picture of American law enforcement and counterintelligence forces that appear woefully incapable of coping with the challenge from China. Some of the cases Wise details seem right out of the Keystone Kops.
Wise ties the unraveling of a half a dozen cases to bureaucratic wrangling, bad decisions by government agents and prosecutors, investigative incompetence, and possible racism, among other problems. FBI probes have upended the lives of innocent Americans and destroyed the career of at least one loyal FBI agent, a Chinese American woman. At the same time, Wise concludes that over the past 30 years, China’s spies have learned an enormous amount about what he calls the most advanced weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the W88, a powerful warhead so small that several can be placed on one missile. Wise reports that details about the W88significantly hastened the modernization of China’s own strategic forces. Chinese spies also have burrowed deep into the FBI’s counterintelligence operations and might have uncovered U.S. attempts to bug then-President Jiang Zemin’s private aircraft in 2001.
The Chinese gather intelligence differently from Western nations, Wise writes. While Russians and Americans rely on professional snoops or fancy equipment, the Chinese count on friends and connections to piece together information. He quotes one FBI analyst as saying that if the Chinese wanted to learn about a beach, they would send in a thousand tourists, each assigned to collect a single grain of sand. “When they returned,” Wise writes, “they would be asked to shake out their towels. And [the Chinese] would end up knowing more about the sand than anyone else.”
But is China’s approach more efficient than the West’s? How much have the Chinese really benefited from all their snooping in the United States? My sense is that the jury is still out. First, while Wise and others report that, thanks in part to its intelligence operations in the United States, China has succeeded in miniaturizing its nuclear weapons — a key step in creating an unstoppable second-strike capability — China doesn’t appear to have made such weapons operational. That’s because after decades of stealing technology, the Chinese continue to have significant trouble building advanced weapons. Another example is in aerospace. The Chinese have been spying on Russian industry for decades, but they still can’t make a reliable jet engine.
A half-dozen espionage cases lie at the heart of “Tiger Trap.” Wise turns his gaze most sharply on the investigation of Leung, a Chinese American who rose to prominence in Southern California with the help of $1.7 million in payments from the FBI. Leung was run as a source for more than a decade by FBI special agent J.J. Smith, a famed counterintelligence officer in Los Angeles. First problem: She became his lover and the lover of another FBI agent, Bill Cleveland, who battled Chinese spies in San Francisco. Second problem: While collecting information about China for the Americans, Leung was also working for the Ministry of State Security in Beijing as a double agent.
Leung did provide some useful intelligence to the FBI. But according to Wise, she also pilfered classified information from Smith’s briefcase after trysts in his San Marino home and passed it to her spymasters in Beijing. The FBI got to the bottom of the Leung case in 2003 after sending in one of its best investigators. But the case fell apart in court when federal prosecutors engaged in what Judge Cooper called “willful and deliberate misconduct.”
Wise also delves into the bungled case against Chinese American physicist Wen Ho Lee. Wen was suspected of providing nuclear-weapons-related information to China but ultimately got off on a lesser charge because of a lack of evidence. While Wise shows little sympathy for those who viewed the case as an example of ethnic profiling against Asians, he makes a strong argument that the FBI, the Energy Department and other U.S. agencies spent too much time focusing on Lee.
The case suffered when U.S. agencies mishandled a Chinese “walk-in” who approached a U.S. Embassy in Southeast Asia with a load of documents in 1995. The “walk-in,” who identified himself as a Chinese intelligence agent, had a detailed file on the W88, apparent proof that China had obtained a trove of American military secrets. Amazingly, the CIA brushed off the “walk-in” as a “dangle” — a spy term for a bogus turncoat — after he failed a lie-detector test. But the FBI disagreed, and the two sides bickered about the importance of the document drop. Wise argues that the walk-in should have immediately sparked a massive investigation to determine the source, or sources, of the leak. But the U.S. government waited three years before acting, and its probe ended in uncertainty.
Wise has written an important book about the spy-vs.-spy games that are guaranteed to capture the imagination of the next generation of espionage aficionados. One can only hope someday to hear the Chinese side of the tale.
John Pomfret, a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, is writing a book about the United States and China.