Seeing Beyond Spies Is the Hard Part

March 14, 1999 - TIM WEINER - The New York Times

WASHINGTON -- A spy worms his way into a delicate niche of U.S. military intelligence. He steals its secrets and sells them to another government. His treachery inflicts the gravest damage to U.S. national security.

Another spook sets out to purloin a foreign government's trade secrets. The foreign government smells a rat, sets a trap that snares the spy, her boss, his deputy and two colleagues, and sends them all packing.

In the first case, the spy was Jonathan Pollard, working for Israel. In the second case, the spies were the CIA's, their target France. Both cases caused political thunderstorms. Like most storms, they passed without permanently altering the landscape. The United States and Israel remain close, and Washington and Paris are amiable, after a fashion, a couple reconciled after an infidelity.

Now assume, as one well might, that China -- no ally -- has been caught, red-handed, spying on the United States.

A Chinese-American has been fired from the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, suspected of swiping bomb blueprints, though he has been charged with nothing. Beijing stands accused of suborning Chinese-Americans for treason, using its embassies as dens of espionage, filching a recipe for miniaturizing nukes.

And the White House is being flayed by Republicans in Congress (or running for president) who say the administration turned a blind eye to Chinese military and intelligence threats, deep-sixed the Los Alamos case and sold out national-security concerns to a mercantile foreign policy driven by campaign-contributing corporations and shady Chinese middlemen.

The imagery goes beyond concerns that holes in the national security fence were closed too slowly for America's own good. The political charges are as powerful as tabloid headlines. Atom spies! Nuclear scandal! Pusillanimous policymakers pussyfoot with Chicoms!

What effect will this have on U.S. politics? Potentially plenty, since a presidential campaign is looming, and exciting foreign-policy issues are scarce.

And what effect will this have on U.S. diplomacy, with a summit coming between the world's most powerful and most populous nations?

"Practically zero," said Donald Gregg, a former CIA station chief and ambassador in South Korea, and deputy national security adviser to President George Bush.

James Lilley, a former CIA station chief and ambassador in Beijing, said: "Espionage is largely separate from the mainstream of foreign policy. You compartment it, you keep demagoguery out of it, you investigate, you nail the spy and you punish him, and you move on."

And former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a similar point: "We should be adult enough to understand that major countries are going to be spying on us. I'm assuming that we are spying on China. That should not in itself affect diplomatic relations."

In other words, grow up, America. Stop acting shocked to discover spies in the global Casbah. The world these days is driven by money, not ideology. And national interests, not angels and devils, are what motivate intelligence strategies and international relations in general.

So, these old hands say, the Los Alamos case should not derail U.S. diplomacy; rather, it is likely to gradually decay into the background of the continuous, contentious chatter between the United States and the Middle Kingdom -- if diplomacy's logic prevails. Still, they say, it could become a lightning rod and thus draw a storm sufficient to change the weather in Washington and the Forbidden City.

"On top of human rights, trade, the Chinese aiming missiles against Taiwan, Chinese views of future warfare -- put that into a presidential campaign, and you have a problem," Lilley said.

Kissinger, who knows a thing or two about the interplay of diplomacy and politics, said: "We are drifting into a confrontation because of our inability to connect our diplomatic policy to public support. You cannot open a newspaper without reading an attack on China. It's a nostalgia for confrontation."

For those in search of enemies, China makes a decent target. Its spy services, its army and its state industries all show "exceptional interest" in buying or stealing U.S. technology to modernize its backward military, the Pentagon says. China spies on the United States much as the Soviets did (it was the first to penetrate the CIA with a long-time mole, Larry Wu-tai Chin, who worked there from 1952 to 1981). Its nuclear weapons are capable, at least in theory, of turning Los Angeles and Seattle into smoking, radiating ruins.

But how real is that threat? China's nuclear arsenal is not much more potent than America's was when Mao Tse-tung took charge 50 years ago, and U.S. deterrent power is overwhelming. China has perhaps two dozen weapons capable of striking the American homeland. If the Chinese so much as twitch a trigger finger, the Pentagon can vaporize their nuclear silos and their cities in one fell swoop. And if the Chinese did indeed steal the trick of miniaturizing nuclear weapons from Los Alamos, speeding the day they can place several warheads on a single missile, there is no evidence yet that they have figured out how to deploy that force in a way that alters the strategic balance with the United States.

Still, a smaller, smarter Chinese bomb could undercut U.S. interests if it altered the balance of fear in Asia. Since Hiroshima, nuclear weapons have proved far more useful as instruments of blackmail -- or, more politely, symbols of strength -- than as military tools. When China rattles its shorter-range missiles, Taiwan and Japan listen. A many-headed missile is a talisman that would place China in the nuclear heavyweight class, far beyond regional upstarts like India and Pakistan. And since the Chinese have sold missile technology to Iran, a breakthrough for Beijing may someday be marketed in Tehran.

Now a clamor is rising for far tighter security at the national laboratories like Los Alamos. Chinese espionage presents a unique problem there. It exclusively uses ethnic Chinese operatives, in large numbers, each supposed to gather a tiny piece of a puzzle. "You are looking at an individual collecting one small part one time, and you don't have the quality of case that our country will take to prosecute as far as espionage," said one senior FBI official -- which may explain why there have been no arrests in the Los Alamos case.

That analysis chills the spines of scientists and Sinophiles. "We have a disproportionate dependence on foreign-born scientists at the labs; they love to work here because it's an open society, so they can do cutting-edge work in a congenial atmosphere," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., a diplomat in Beijing under President Ronald Reagan and co-chairman of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. "So will there now be a pall of suspicion against Chinese scientists? Are we now going to have a witch hunt? If you ratchet it up and exclude foreign-born scientists, what will that do to our competitive edge?"

The outlook wasn't sunny for the summit before the latest storm. President Clinton still cannot find a new U.S. ambassador willing to carry out his policies, a mix of mercantile zest and missionary zeal. The Chinese have never been thrilled with the United States slamming them for political repression, selling warplanes to their archfoe Taiwan, embracing their old enemy Vietnam, and envisioning a united Korea allied with the United States.

And the prospects for China's most-favored-nation status and its admission to the World Trade Organization won't improve if the Clinton administration cannot find a way to speak bluntly in private to the Chinese and publicly to the American people about nukes and spooks.

"Some people in the United States are busy spreading the 'China threat' fallacy and trying to find a new enemy for the United States," said Chinese Ambassador Li Zhao-xing in a speech in Washington in January. It evoked something that former Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye, now dean of the Kennedy School of Government, said in 1995: "If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy."

Diplomacy, like politics, is the art of the possible. Since the Cold War, Americans have dreamt of engaging Chinese leaders who are more like us than Marx or Mao. Still, it is hard to be a great nation without a great enemy.

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