My Take

The curious timing of the China spy killing story

Could The New York Times article about the destruction of the US’ spy network in China be a warning by US intelligence services to the White House?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 1:34am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 1:34am

The New York Times’ page-one splash on Sunday reads like a spy novel by John Le Carre – except it was all real. Moles were planted by the CIA deep within the Chinese government; a ruthlessly efficient counter-intelligence operation by mainland spymasters exposed the whole spying network; and desperate and ultimately fruitless attempts were made by the Americans to alert and save those spies, up to 20 of whom were either executed or jailed.

I am not going to wrap myself around the national flag. Nations spy on each other. It is either the oldest or second-oldest profession in the world. One country’s hero is another country’s traitor. It’s all relative, morally speaking.

But what is interesting is the timing of the story. The issue should have been all water under the bridge between the two countries, considering it all happened back in 2010 to 2012. Presumably, whatever diplomatic problems were raised – say, between former presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao – had been resolved.

CIA spy-killing claims ‘show China’s strength in counter-espionage’

The Times’ reporters managed to get no less than 10 current and former American intelligence officers to talk about the hitherto unknown debacle. A joint task force of the CIA and FBI could not determine what exposed their moles on the mainland. In other words, after all these years, they still don’t know what hit them. Now that’s more than embarrassing.

It’s possible the Times’ reporters dug up the story on their own. But at a time government departments are leaking left, right and centre in the era of Donald Trump, the story has all the characteristics of a classic Washington set-up.

Trump has been undermining the CIA and FBI – the latest spat being the firing of FBI director James Comey and the reported disclosure of top secrets to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister during their visit to the White House.

But Trump’s sudden tilt towards Beijing in policy directives – away from the Asian pivot or containment policy of Obama – must have alarmed “old China hands” at those agencies. One can only speculate, but reopening that old scar may be an attempt to refocus on the dangers a resurgent China poses to Americans. After all, the so-called deep state represented by the CIA, FBI and Pentagon has long concluded that China is by far a greater rival than Russia in the 21st century.