Espionage without evidence

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

By Jeff Stein
Published August 26, 1999 4:00PM (UTC)
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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

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.

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