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