The ABC's of Spying
ROBERT M. GATES - March 14, 1999 - The New York Times
The current furor in Washington over Chinese
espionage at Los Alamos offers fresh evidence that
finger-pointing and sound bites are a lousy way to
protect and advance American security interests. Too
many officials, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, are
trying harder to make political hay or to protect
themselves than to explain the larger lessons of China's
actions and our own lax security. And too many
commentators would rather egg on the antagonists for
another good fight than shed light on the real issues at
Is anyone really surprised that China spies on us,
trying to steal military, economic, technological and
intelligence secrets? Does anyone believe this is new?
Remember the case of Larry Wu-Tai Chin, the C.I.A.
employee who was arrested in the mid-1980's for spying
for China? He was hardly the only one. Russia also
continues to spy on us, though many seemed surprised
that a post-cold-war Russian intelligence service
continued to run the Soviet spy Aldrich Ames as a mole
in the C.I.A. Yet our broader relationship with both
countries has continued nonetheless.
And it's not just old adversaries who spy on the United
States. How about Israel paying Jonathan Pollard for
thousands of pages of sensitive American intelligence
documents? Or the French intelligence services stealing
American business secrets by planting moles in American
companies and bugging the hotel rooms of visiting
American businessmen? Or the 20 or so other foreign
governments that spy on American businesses?
The point of this is not to excuse China's espionage on
the ground that everyone does it, but to highlight a
reality that both the Clinton Administration and its
critics neglect: despite the bonhomie of countless
summit meetings and press statements, the post-cold-war
world is a very tough neighborhood in which nations
still cynically and ruthlessly pursue their own
Governments modernize and enlarge their military forces,
they spy, they sell technology for weapons of mass
destruction, they lie and they cheat in order to amass
power and wealth. (Nor are our own intelligence services
idle in promoting American interests and protecting us
We should draw three lessons from this reality.
First, in a tough world -- the only world there has ever
been, really -- we must recognize the critical and
enduring importance of American strength and enhance
that strength in all its dimensions: military,
intelligence and diplomatic. Nor can we let our
vigilance slacken. And that includes protecting secrets
that matter, like nuclear weapons technology.
Second, our leaders need to help Americans understand
that today we will find most nations to be both our
partners and our adversaries -- sometimes
simultaneously. Pigeonholing most countries in one or
the other category -- as either friend or foe -- is
wrongheaded and undermines our national interest.
This is not realpolitik; it is just plain common sense.
The challenge, as always, is how to encourage behavior
that advances our interests (and values) and to
discourage behavior that does not -- and to do both
these things in a manner that promotes long-term
constructive relations with other world powers.
Third, too many foreign policy experts, especially in
the current Administration, have often tried to play
down or put the best face on troubling actions by
Russia, China, North Korea and others. This does a
disservice to the public's understanding of what is
going on, and thus to our ability to act in response.
For instance, when officials fail to address candidly
the pervasive corruption in the Russian Government (and
the theft of billions in Western aid) as well as
Moscow's aid to Iran's missile program and Russian
obstructionism in the former Yugoslavia, this makes it
harder for them to justify attempts to build closer ties
Similarly, the failure to acknowledge China's
misbehavior -- its role in the proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction, its theft of technology, its
aggressive espionage against us, its repression of
internal dissent -- undermines our Government's efforts
to foster a stable, mutually beneficial relationship
Such relationships are complicated. Washington -- and
the media -- should stop underestimating Americans'
ability to understand this if given the full story.
The more Americans know about both friendly and
unfriendly behavior by powers like Russia and China, the
better they will understand a mix of policies that
together protect and advance our interests.
That imposes a burden on both the Administration and
Congress to be forthright and honest about what they
know: the good, the bad and the ugly. It is a burden
that neither, so far, has effectively shouldered.
The result is tepid support for protecting our interests
abroad -- or, worse, public indifference. When American
leaders fail to speak forthrightly about the dangers
that confront us, many citizens simply turn their backs
on a complicated and confusing world.
Robert M. Gates, a career intelligence officer, served
on the National Security Council staff under four
Presidents and was Director of Central Intelligence
under President George Bush.
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