Editor’s Note: David Wise is the author of numerous books on national security, intelligence and espionage. His latest book, Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China, was published June 14 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
By David Wise – Special to CNN
For almost half a century during the Cold War, the world focused on the global espionage battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The duel between the CIA and the KGB, portrayed in countless books, films and news stories captured the public imagination.
Espionage became a kind of entertainment thanks in no small part to the fictional exploits of James Bond. This fiction masked a cold reality.
In the actual conflict, spies and their agents died. Lives were shattered. The KGB's supermoles - Aldrich Ames in the CIA and Robert Hanssen in the FBI - stole U.S. secrets by the trunkful and betrayed agents working for U.S. intelligence. Many of those agents were executed.
A the East-West intelligence battles played out in back alleys across the globe, scant attention was paid to the espionage operations of a rising global power– China. And scant attention was paid to the efforts of U.S. counterintelligence (not always successful) to counter Beijing's attempts to acquire America's secrets.
Inside the FBI, Soviet spies were regarded as the principal quarry. Chinese counterintelligence was relegated to a back seat. Yet, China has spied on America for decades with some spectacular but little known results.
During World War II, Soviet spies penetrated the Manhattan Project and stole U.S. atomic secrets. That was not lost on China. In the decades after World War II, Chinese espionage was principally aimed at stealing U.S. nuclear weapons data. By acquiring those secrets, China could bypass years of research and testing and speed its own development of nuclear weapons.
With its modernization efforts devastated by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, China coveted such shortcuts. So the United States, particularly the nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, became its primary target.
The FBI suspected that Gwo-Bao Min, an engineer at the Livermore lab, had passed the secrets of the neutron bomb to China. The case was given the code-name TIGER TRAP by the Bureau. Although the FBI gathered considerable evidence, the Justice Department declined to authorize an arrest. However, Min was forced to resign from the nuclear weapons lab.
Another priority of Chinese intelligence has been to infiltrate U.S. counterintelligence. The F.B.I. was penetrated until 2002 by Katrina Leung, a prominent figure in the Chinese American community in Los Angeles who worked as an F.B.I. asset for twenty years under the code name PARLOR MAID.
Leung was having affairs with the bureau's two top agents on the West Coast responsible for Chinese counterintelligence, James J. Smith and William V. Cleveland, Jr. She fed F.B.I. secrets to China’s foreign intelligence service, the M.S.S., for years, telling investigators she filched them from Smith's briefcase during their trysts at her home.
F.B.I. director Robert S. Mueller III assigned his top counterintelligence agent, Leslie G. Wiser, Jr., to go to Los Angeles in 2002 and investigate. Operating with a team of handpicked agents from a secret location in Santa Monica, Wiser broke open the case. Leung and Smith were arrested. Smith pleaded guilty to lying about his affair with Leung. She, too, pleaded guilty to lying about their affair and to failing to report some of her income from the F.B.I. Neither was sentenced to prison. And the government had avoided a sensational espionage trial in which the Bureau’s secrets might have been aired.
The CIA was also penetrated by Chinese intelligence. A mole named Larry Wu-Tai Chin worked for Chinese intelligence for more than 30 years until he was caught by the FBI in 1985.
There have been many more recent examples of Chinese spying against the United States. Dongfan "Greg" Chung volunteered to spy for China. Chung, a naturalized U.S. citizen, worked in the aerospace industry in southern California for thirty years.
At Boeing he was a stress analyst on the space shuttle. Chung sent twenty-four manuals from Rockwell to China on the B-1 bomber. When the F.B.I. searched his home in California in 2006 they were astonished to find 300,000 pages of Boeing documents hidden in the house pertaining to the space shuttle, rockets and military aircraft. Some of the documents were in a crawl space underneath the house. Chung was arrested, convicted and sentenced in 2010 to almost sixteen years in prison.
China and the United States have a mutual dependence and a common interest in avoiding conflict. Without exaggerating the danger of Chinese espionage, it is a fact that China’s spying on America is ongoing, current and shows no sign of diminishing.
Chinese computer hackers have penetrated the Pentagon, the State Department and U.S. companies, such as Google.
Americans should be aware that China, when it can, steals U.S. secrets. The espionage battle is no less real for being largely unseen.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of David Wise.
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