When it comes to national security, the counter espionage folks at FBI find easy pickings when they search for spies. They just look among the 3 million plus Chinese Americans living in our midst.
Since the organization was founded by J. Edgar Hoover, FBI has been operating on the assumption that China conducts espionage differently from other nations by relying on sympathetic Chinese Americans to supply tiny tidbits of information. FBI calls this a “grains of sand” approach to spying.
As the theory goes, when all these tiny bits of information are assembled, China will have stolen the design of the multi headed missile or whatever the next generation weapon of mass destruction the U.S. happens to be working on. Small wonder then that many in FBI see Chinese Americans as bona fide prospective spies.
This is a legacy from Hoover, a closet homosexual who sublimated his frustrations by peeping into the bedrooms of folks he did not approve, including such luminaries as JFK and Martin Luther King. Hoover also never liked those slant eyed, buck toothed “Orientals” running around this great land of ours.
Hoover testified before Congress during the cold war years that Red China sent agents to the U.S. under the guise of lawful immigrants and illegal aliens. They in turn recruited others from among the Chinese American community. The same allegations appeared again in the 1999 Cox Committee Congressional Report on the Red China scare.
Paul Moore, who apparently can speak some Putonghua, was, before he retired, FBI’s resident expert on Chinese espionage. He continues to be widely quoted on how China uses the grains of sand method for gathering intelligence. He used to carpool with Robert Hanssen, greatest double agent ever to work for Soviet Union, and never smell a fish but Moore could spot a Chinese spy in any crowd.
Today, this mindset persists in America especially at FBI. They apparently believe fast advancing, highly scientific details of military weapon systems can be pieced together through patiently gathered information over a long period. Any clear thinking individual can see that this wholesale racial profiling rests on a shaky if not ludicrous premise.
Take the latest case of Chi Mak still pending formal trial in Los Angeles Federal District Court. Mak works for a defense contractor and is a specialist in power electronics. The FBI has charged him with attempting to send secret information to China.
Disclosure of all the facts is pending the formal trial, but some of the revelations are illuminating. According to the FBI, Mak was caught trying to send his own published papers to China. Published papers are in public domain, but apparently can become state secrets in a grains-of-sand conspiracy. FBI seems unable to distinguish the desire to help ones motherland from espionage.
The defense attorney asked for bail on Mak’s behalf pointing out that he has been a naturalized citizen residing in the same address for the last 27 years. The prosecution’s simple rebuttal was that this fact just confirmed Mak’s effective deep cover as a mole. In other words, Mak was guilty until proven otherwise.
One piece of information leaked to the press was that Mak was caught with plans of a nuclear power plant on his person. On actual inspection, the “plan” in question turned out to be a sketch of roads to the power plant to facilitate Mak and his colleagues finding the place. Mak was part of a team sent by his firm to provide technical service to the power plant.
Leaking misleading or even false information to the press as a way of convicting a Chinese American suspect in lieu of hard evidence has been a favorite ploy of the American law enforcement authorities. Dr. Wen Ho Lee, formerly a scientist at Los Alamos, was tarred in the press with groundless innuendos which led to his incarceration for nine months.
When Lee finally came to trial, the FBI agent in charge had to admit that he lied about the evidence in Lee’s case. Lee’s original charge of treason for sending multiple head missile technology to China was reduced to a misdemeanor for downloading computer data against laboratory procedure. The presiding judge actually apologized to Lee as he dismissed the case(1).
Perhaps learning from the Lee fiasco, FBI handled Denise Woo differently. Woo was one of their own outstanding graduates who joined FBI in order to serve her country—in her case the United States. Her supervisors violated Bureau procedure when they asked her to spy on a Chinese American they suspected of espionage for China. Woo was not trained for undercover work and she knew the suspect personally and thus was put in potential conflict of interest.
When Woo reported back to her office that JW, the suspect in question, was clean, they removed her from the case. Eventually, they dropped the case because they could not find any evidence on JW but not before turning his life upside down and getting him fired from his employer, a defense contractor.
As if to salvage something from this fiasco, the FBI authorities then charged Woo with abetting an enemy agent. This time they proceeded quietly rather than with usual media fanfare. While this case is also heading towards resolution, the racial bias against Chinese Americans run deep and Woo will not be fully exonerated nor get the justice she deserves.
Aside from the obvious conclusion that grains of sand espionage could hardly be an effective way of spying, FBI can also see that China does not use grains of sand espionage elsewhere. When spies were caught across the Taiwan Straits by either side, they revealed the same universal modus operandi, namely they were recruited with booze, sex or cash.
In fact they could easily learn about Chinese techniques by interviewing Donald Keyser, the most senior State Department official to be compromised by Isabella Cheng, a comely undercover agent from Republic of China on Taiwan. FBI monitors—and they are good at this sort of activity--reported seeing them parked in lover’s lanes in Washington where her head disappeared from view for twenty minutes at a time.
Keyser has admitted to turning over reams of confidential information on Jiang Zemin’s meeting with President Bush while fondling a naked Chinese asset nearly thirty years his junior—though he assured his interrogators that no sex or espionage was involved. He, obviously not a Chinese American, has been permitted to retire. While the case is allegedly still under investigation, Keyser has yet to spend one day in jail.
Inequity aside, this institutional bias towards Chinese Americans has and will cost America dearly.
Some fifty years ago, during the height of McCarthyism and xenophobic paranoia, the U.S. hounded and persecuted Qian Xuesen. Qian was no run of the mill rocket scientist. He was a founding member of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab and personally responsible for many of the early breakthroughs in rocket telemetry developed for the U.S. military. He even held an American military rank of colonel.
First McCarthy accused him of being a communist despite flimsy evidence. Since his work was halted by the hearings, he decided to return to China to see his parents. When the customs official found his books and papers in this luggage, the federal government accused him of being a spy for China and put him under house arrest.
Eventually, the U.S. released him to China in exchange for prisoners of the Korean War. This single act presented China with more critical missile technology, carried in Qian’s head, than all the grains of sand from Mojave Desert could have accomplished.
The American military labs and defense contractors are full of Chinese American scientists and engineers. If they were to all leave their posts, the American defense capability would be crippled. Yet the recent experiences of Wen Ho Lee and Chi Mak suggest that no matter how brilliant have been their careers and vital have been their contributions, they will never be fully accepted but can become a suspicious alien in a minute.
The U.S. intelligence community badly needs to recruit from ethnic Americans with the right kind of racial, cultural and linguistic background to work on the front lines of intelligence gathering. Yet as the experience of Denise Woo and Captain James Yee(2) shows, not only the agencies that employ them can’t be counted on to support them but can become the very organizations that turn on them.
Even though Chinese Americans represent slightly more than 1% of the U.S. population, their high school graduates regularly capture 10-20% of national prizes in science competition and occupy comparable or higher percentages of entering freshman classes in top tier universities. Given their success in the private sector--in Silicon Valley, Chinese Americans are responsible for more than 20% of the high tech start-ups—it is difficult to see why they would want to work in defense sensitive industries and national military laboratories and subject themselves to specious treason charges.
However, in a June BBC telecast on China’s espionage, the FBI agent in charge of Silicon Valley, Don Przybyla said, “China is using a shot-gun approach, flooding the Silicon Valley with engineers and scientists.
"The Chinese have found success in obtaining the technology through stealing, essentially. Once successful they'll send more people over to do the same thing."
It seems Agent Przybyla has substituted the imagery of grains of sand with the shot gun, but otherwise the same chilling broad brush categorization remains. Namely, watch out for all those Chinese running around the Silicon Valley. Perhaps, simply joining the private sector will not free the Chinese American from racial bias so deeply ingrained in the FBI.
Of course, America’s superior racial and ideological smugness incurs even greater costs than just the impact on Chinese Americans. With the current zeal to democratize the Middle East by the point of the sword, we will need every willing Arab American to serve on the front lines as soldiers, intelligence officers and diplomats. Unfortunately the very people that we need are the ones feeling most of the brunt of racism and ethnic bias arising from mass anti-Islamic hysteria. The inducement for them to volunteer is not easy to see.
(1) Six years after his release, Dr. Lee finally received some compensation for his pain and suffering. The payment came from the media so as to protect their integrity of not disclosing their sources. The government sources responsible for the leaks of misinformation were not revealed, and the sources did not have to face public accounting for their actions. Justice was hardly served.
(2) Days after Capt. Yee, a Muslim chaplain and West Point graduate, received a commendation for outstanding performance at Guantanamo, he was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement for consorting with the enemy, namely the hapless prisoners. He was subsequently honorably discharged and facts surrounding his case never underwent the rigors of a public scrutiny but suggested that the commanding general of Guantanamo despised Yee for ministering to the prisoners too well. The same commanding general went on to supervise the inhumane treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.