Espionage without evidence

Is it racism, or realism, to look at Chinese-Americans when trying to figure out who's spying for China?


As the case against Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist accused of spying for China, seems on the verge of unraveling, critics have raised the volume of their complaints about the fact that Lee was targeted at least partly because of his Chinese origins. But U.S. espionage experts say scientists of Chinese descent working in this country are trapped in an endless game of spy vs. spy between the United States and China, tangled in a web of espionage so subtle that many don’t even know they’re players.

And for the foreseeable future, these experts say, Beijing won’t stop targeting them for recruitment, thus provoking the attention of FBI gumshoes who run roughshod over the lives of Chinese-born scientists like Wen Ho Lee because they don’t know what they’re looking for.

Paul Moore, the FBI’s top China hand from 1975 until he retired last year, called China’s spy system “espionage without evidence,” so impenetrable to U.S. counterspies and prosecutors that it was “bulletproof.”

China’s espionage operations are so subtle, he and others added, that scientists might not even know they were handing over valuable information. Thus the United States is wasting time pursuing Los Alamos espionage suspect Lee and turning its nuclear labs upside down in security sweeps.

“It’s nice to think, but it’s not true, that where there’s espionage there inevitably is evidence of espionage,” Moore told Salon News in a two-hour interview. “The Chinese have found a way to commit espionage against the United States which does not leave sufficient evidence behind for there to be successful investigations and successful prosecutions.”

With the resignation this week of Energy Department security official Notra Trulock, the prime source of alarm over Chinese espionage in the media and on Capitol Hill, many critics are lambasting the FBI for singling out Lee because he is Chinese-American, when Beijing could have acquired U.S. nuclear secrets from multiple sources.

Chalmers Johnson, a University of California China specialist, called the Lee investigation America’s version of the Dreyfus Affair, wherein a Jew was scapegoated for French security lapses a century ago.

“The sole evidence cited against [Lee] is that in June 1988, during the Reagan administration, he along with 200 other scientists attended an International Computational Physics Conference in Beijing with the permission and clearance of the Los Alamos Laboratory,” Johnson wrote.

But engaging scientists at conferences is exactly how the Chinese operate, Moore says.

“Their major effort is to try and develop relations with Chinese-Americans, as many of them as possible, in the hopes that the relations will turn out to be profitable — someday, somehow, somewhere,” Moore said.

Understandably, FBI sources bristle at charges of racism, and say if anybody should be tagged with that brush, it’s the Chinese, for singling out scientists of Chinese descent.

“First critics say our government is racist because the government is targeting Chinese-Americans because they are Chinese,” said Harry Brandon, a former head of FBI counterintelligence who retired in 1995 as the Los Alamos probe was heating up. “And the answer is, Yes, we are targeting them, because they are targets (of Beijing).”

“The only people racially biased in this case is the Chinese intelligence service,” Brandon said in an interview, “which continues to target Chinese-Americans for the only reason that they are ethnic Chinese.”

Brandon said that “probably 99.99 percent of Chinese-Americans wouldn’t have anything to do with” Chinese spying overtures. But Moore said that Beijing’s spy operations are so subtle that most U.S. scientists “wouldn’t even know” they were supplying valuable information to China.

China rarely employs professional intelligence officers to recruit American spies. Instead, he said, it uses its own scientists to elicit “small bits and pieces of information” from their American counterparts during conferences and private conversations, almost always in China.

Chinese spy masters eschew secret meetings with agents, cryptic chalk signals on Washington mailboxes, or “dead drops” of money or documents on rural roads — all the well-known facets of the Aldrich Ames and Walker family spy cases in the 1980s. The Chinese avoid clandestine contacts of any kind between agents and handlers, on U.S. or even their own soil, Moore said, preferring to elicit information in open contacts with U.S. scientists. Chinese spy handlers, he said, rarely even ask a source for a classified document.

That leaves nothing to be tracked or photographed by U.S. counterspies
looking for proof of espionage, he said, as in the case of Lee. The FBI
and its critics both miss the point of how China conducts spying
operations, he suggested, by squabbling over whether Attorney General
Janet Reno was right to decline warrants for wiretaps on Lee’s home and
telephones. The liklihood of finding a “smoking gun” was scant, Moore says:
Beijing’s spy masters “want what’s between their ears, not what’s in the
briefcase.” He added that he couldn’t conceive of Chinese spy masters asking
Lee or any other scientist, Chinese or not, to download classified documents
and deliver them to Beijing: too much risk.

“It would not be the kind of thing anybody would ask them to do,” Moore said. “If you’re asking if someone would come along and give them the Rosetta stone of U.S. nuclear secrets, that’s possible. Possible, but not probable. It doesn’t fit the Chinese MO.”

Beijing’s spies don’t target Chinese-Americans because they’re susceptible to recruitment, Moore emphasized, but because they’re more accessible. It’s simply easier for Chinese spies and officials to meet and create rapport with Chinese-Americans, especially in the United States.

And they’re willing to wait years for the opportune time to pitch a target for a sliver of useful information, bypassing a formal recruitment altogether. The target won’t even know he’s been “developed.”

“What the Chinese are after is an indiscretion,” Moore says — usually after a scientist has had a full day and a few drinks. “It doesn’t have to be classified, it just has to be helpful, and they want it to be more than what they would normally get, more than what they are entitled to get. That’s the way they play the game: They want ‘X-plus.’”

“I call it espionage by indiscretion,” Moore says, and it’s not even worth the time of U.S. counterspies to try to catch it. “The name of the game for the counterintelligence people, and even the security people, is not to try to stop Chinese espionage, because Chinese espionage in this model almost doesn’t exist. It’s a by-product of indiscretion.”

“It’s an essentially impossible counterintelligence task,” Moore said, and “the U.S. is losing.”

Despite the furor over the Wen Ho Lee case, Chinese-American scientists can still expect to be bombarded by Beijing’s approaches for information, Moore and Brandon said. The only way to keep from being caught up in the spy and counter-spy game, they said, is to avoid situations where they might be vulnerable.

“Don’t go into a room alone with them,” Moore said. Stick with a friend on a junket to China. “Just like a school trip,” he half-joked. “Hold hands with your partner.”

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>