Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China
by David Wise
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Beijing poses more of an espionage threat to America than Moscow. That is, if you are to believe the new East-West expose Tiger Trap by veteran intelligence analyst David Wise.

According to Wise, China has legions of unpaid spies offered business deals and benefits instead of cash, after careful selection. Middle Kingdom spymasters are picky about which Chinese-Americans they groom. Bitter losers needing friendship or girlfriends are out.'China is looking to get good people to do bad things,' Paul Moore, the FBI's chief China analyst for 20 years, is quoted as saying. 'How do you recruit a good person? You get a good person to do this by convincing him it would be good to help China. China is a poor country, they say, and somebody has to help them modernise, improve their defence system.'

Usually, like a telemarketing call, a spymaster's recruitment ploy fails. Still, China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) is apparently thriving. Its spies infiltrate everywhere from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon plus the CIA and FBI.

Drawing on almost 500 interviews conducted with more than 150 sources, Wise highlights two notorious Chinese spying cases: 'Parlour Maid' and 'Tiger Trap'. Katrina Leung, the FBI agent at the heart of the first and obliquely involved in the second, comes across as a modern Mata Hari with a seductive knack for extracting secrets.

Senior FBI officials learned that the high-profile Los Angeles-based businesswoman might be chattering to Chinese officials back in 1987. During the 1990s, more red flags were raised. Still, the FBI gullibly trusted and retained Leung, paying her handsomely. Only in 2001 did the bureau finally actively investigate whether the high-flier might be a double agent. The investigation, which suggested that she was suspect, found for instance that she and her Los Angeles FBI 'handler', agent James Smith, had been lovers for almost two decades.

Still, on January 6, 2005, thanks to 'prosecutorial misconduct' the case against Leung collapsed. 'I love America,' Leung memorably said.

Earlier, the self-styled American patriot served as a source in the 1979 FBI investigation codenamed 'Tiger Trap'. The investigation centred on Taiwanese aeronautical engineer Gwo-Bao Min, who worked at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Washington suspected Min of divulging the design of a neutron bomb project to Beijing. The evidence suggested he was a mole. Prosecutors, however, failed to find enough evidence even to charge Min with spying. So, in an extraordinarily abrupt anti-climax Min was never tried. What a bungle.

Like Leung's case, Min's suggests that China is outwitting America, which kicks up little fuss because of its US$350 billion debt to the People's Republic. Beijing is America's banker, Wise notes.

But some US-based Chinese espionage suspects who fall foul of the authorities are prosecuted and convicted. Wise reports on the scourge of Boeing - a west coast spy ring whose members were sentenced in 2010. Edging into futuristic terrain, Wise weighs up hi-tech 'kill switches' and cyber-spies who hijack your computer, turn it into a zombie, even peer at you through your webcam.

Wise is previously responsible for titles including Spy - the inside story of an FBI mole - and The Invisible Government, which is a look at the CIA's foreign policy role, published in 1964.

His experience tells. Tiger Trap has a rattling 'plot', incisive analysis and keen observation. Take the description of Leung on trial in June 2003.

'Leung wore an oversize green shapeless jacket. She looked small, not much over five feet, a tiny woman with jet-black hair pulled back in a tight bun, a thin, chiselled face, with high cheekbones and a firm chin,' Wise writes. The image suggests that someone like Leung might easily embed in your office or neighbourhood.

Either way, Chinese spying looks unlikely to go away any time soon.

'Indeed,' Wise says, 'China may be America's single most effective and dangerous adversary.'