TIGER TRAP: AMERICA’S SECRET SPY WAR WITH CHINA
By David Wise
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 277 pages
Even admirers of the late J. Edgar Hoover (count me among them) recognize that the old man stayed on duty long after wisdom dictated retirement. But despite his flaws, I suggest that it is only in the post-Hoover FBI, when his notoriously strict discipline softened, that we could see the spectacle of two agents working on Chinese counterintelligence succumbing to the sexual allures of a “source” who also was an agent of the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS).
Further, although the agents were concurrent bed mates of the woman for years, neither knew the other was sharing the charms of Katrina Leung, code-named “Parlor Maid.” Is it unkind to suggest that the agents’ tradecraft was sorely flawed?
David Wise, who has been writing about intelligence since the early 1960s and is, in my view, the best in the business, now turns his considerable talent to a little-noted facet of the espionage wars: the ongoing campaign by the People’s Republic of China to steal U.S. nuclear-weaponry secrets. For years, of course, Soviet spying spawned movies, best-selling books and incessant publicity elsewhere. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has become “America’s chief rival” in the intelligence wars and has scored many signal and unheralded successes.
Parlor Maid is one of dozens of cases, clustered on the West Coast, that Mr. Wise examines in “Tiger Trap.” Based on extensive interviews with FBI counterintelligence officers, Mr. Wise offers a fascinating primer on how MSS tradecraft differs from that of the old KGB. As veteran agent Paul Moore explained, “China normally does not pay money for intelligence. The typical Chinese way is, you help the Chinese, they will help you to develop an export business to sell cheap salad bowls to Kmart.” And rather than recruiting agents, MSS relies on “informal contacts to gather information.”
Further, “the principle that the Chinese apply is simple enough: People will almost never commit espionage, but they will often be indiscreet if they can be put in the right circumstances. The root problem is people making mistakes, rather than people committing espionage.” Scientists are especially susceptible to letting slip secret information in exchanges with their Chinese counterparts.
Many cases were broken when CIA abroad enlisted walk-ins and defectors and milked them for leads on MSS. Skilled FBI investigators then converted obscure leads into cases. For instance, agents photographed a key in the luggage of a man traveling to China. A defector later said that an individual spying for MSS stayed in a certain hotel room when in Peiping (Beijing). The key proved to be for that very room, and the man was arrested.
As to Parlor Maid and her FBI serial lovers, the case ended in disarray because of blunders committed by the Justice Department in drafting a plea agreement. Sloppy phraseology was interpreted to mean that an agent could not talk to Parlor Maid’s lawyers, denying her the right to confront her accusers. Major charges were dismissed; she pleaded guilty to one minor tax count and was sentenced to three years probation and a $10,000 fine. (The FBI paid her $1,718,889 over 19 years for her services as a source.) Agent J.J. Smith was sentenced to three months house arrest and three years probation; colleague William Cleveland was permitted to resign without charges.
A quibble: I must fault Mr. Wise for disinterring an old National Enquirer story alleging that Richard Nixon had a sexual affair with a Hong Kong nightclub hostess. The yarn started with a vague report a British treasury officer gave to an FBI agent in Hong Kong in 1967, before Nixon was elected president. To his credit, Mr. Wise tracked down the woman, now living in California, who flatly denied the allegations. I suggest that a writer of Mr. Wise’s caliber should dismiss such rubbish rather than giving it further currency.
Mr. Wise also chose not to pursue a key element of an important Reagan administration countermove against Chinese theft of U.S. secrets. In the hypersecret Operation Farewell, conceived by an unsung White House genius named Gus Weiss, the Chinese were permitted to “steal” high-tech equipment that was engineered to fail, spectacularly, in due course. The CIA, the FBI and the U.S. Customs Service repeatedly scammed in the Chinese (and the Soviets, for that matter) for years.
Mr. Wise suggests that economics and financial reasons contribute to Washington’s somewhat muted response to Chinese spying - “the ambiguous and mutually dependent nature of the relationship between the United States and China in the 21st century.” Meanwhile, Mr. Wise contends, “China may be America’s single most effective and dangerous adversary.”
Five cloaks, five daggers, for a groundbreaking and highly readable account.
Joseph C. Goulden’s revised edition of “SpySpeak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books in the fall.