Tuesday, December 14, 2004

China’s intelligence service spent years training a spy who posed as a Catholic priest in New York and was part of an escape plan for a Chinese agent in the CIA, according to a veteran FBI counterspy.

Retired Special Agent I.C. Smith said China’s use of the masquerading priest was “one of the most fascinating things” about the spy case of Larry Wu-tai Chin, who supplied secrets to China for decades as a CIA translator until his arrest in 1985.

“The People’s Republic of China Ministry of State Security took a married Chinese national from the People’s Republic and over several years gave him the background to be a priest,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.

He identified the agent-priest as Mark Cheung, a minister with the Church of the Transfiguration in New York’s Chinatown. “He was actually a Ministry of State Security operative,” Mr. Smith said of Cheung.

Cheung was a Chinese “illegal” — a deep-undercover spy dispatched abroad to help in intelligence-gathering operations, he said. Mr. Smith said Cheung “was there to be part of the escape plan for Larry Chin.”

According to Mr. Smith, emergency escape plans called for Chin to meet Cheung in the confessional booth of the downtown New York City church. China’s intelligence service “spent years on this guy, bouncing him around in the South Pacific, building up a background to make it appear that he was a legitimate Catholic priest.”

FBI agents later caught up with Cheung in Hong Kong and questioned him about his activities. But he was “uncooperative” and eventually fled to mainland China, where he is believed to be today, Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith, a former FBI special agent in charge in Little Rock, Ark., worked for years in Chinese counterintelligence within the agency. He disclosed new information about China’s spy and influence operations in his book, “Inside: A Top G-Man Exposes Spies, Lies and Bureaucratic Bungling Inside the FBI.” Mr. Smith spent 1973 to 1998 in the FBI.

Chin was uncovered in 1983 and arrested in November 1985. In 1986, he killed himself using a plastic bag in an Alexandria jail cell two weeks after he was convicted of spying for China since 1948. He was revealed after an official of the Ministry of State Security began working secretly for the CIA before defecting to the United States.

The Chinese defector has been identified by U.S. officials as Yu Zhensan, who was code-named “Planesman” by the FBI. He is one of only two major intelligence defections from China. “He was a guy that was being operated in China,” Mr. Smith said.

Chin was caught after the defector provided a “sketchy” clue in the early 1980s that an Asian employee of U.S. intelligence was spying for China and had once been delayed prior to a flight to Hong Kong to meet a control agent.

“The source basically said [the spy] came to Beijing, but his flight got delayed,” Mr. Smith said. “We go back and find a phone call went in to the [Chinese] Embassy, where it basically said, ‘Hey, my flight’s delayed, what do I do?’ That kind of gave it to us. We looked at everybody on the flight. It was just typical grunt, hard investigative work.”

The phone call led the FBI to Chin.

Prior to the FBI probe, the CIA conducted its own probe, but failed to uncover Chin, a translator who was granted access to classified information in 1970. He caused the deaths of U.S. agents by supplying information to Chinese intelligence during trips to Hong Kong, Mr. Smith said.

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