China Syndromes

David Wise
Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011)

As a precocious child growing up the 1980s, I became unduly interested in nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and espionage. This was probably due to the inundation of media scare stories about Russians and nuclear winter, as well as ABC’s frequent showings of old James Bond movies. As illogical as it seems now, I lived in a nearly perpetual state of fear that my hometown, which had a population under 20,000 and was hours away from any major metropolis, was subject to vaporization by foreign powers and super villains far removed. The fascination with Bond and his ilk followed naturally; they were the thin black-ops line that spared my life from utter annihilation. As I grew older and the cold war ended, my favorite movie became Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The dark satire burst the balloon of paranoia that had enveloped my childhood. I frequently thought of the film as I read David Wise’s Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China.

Wise’s book mainly focuses on the Parlor Maid case, while also detailing a number of smaller issues involving Chinese intelligence gathering and American counter intelligence operations. Parlor Maid was the code name given to Katrina Leung, a Chinese immigrant to the U.S. who had established herself in the Chinese-American business community of Los Angeles. Her initial recruiter was J.J. Smith, a hotshot agent who made a name for himself primarily by recruiting Leung, who was always able to provide worthwhile information to the Bureau. Of course, as Wise reveals, Smith began having an affair with Leung shortly after her recruitment. Additionally, Leung also began an affair with another top agent, Bill Cleveland, a Chinese counter-intelligence agent who was working a related case, the titular Tiger Trap. Neither of the agents were aware of the other’s illicit involvements, and the situation would probably not have become a major problem until it was discovered that Leung had been passing U.S. information left unattended by Smith during their trysts back to the Chinese intelligence services. She was a double agent.

The Parlor Maid case exposes a great deal of the absurdity inherent in the intelligence community. After Leung was caught on tape relaying damaging, classified information back to her spymaster at the M.S.S. (the Chinese equivalent of the C.I.A.), Smith pleaded her case with higher-ups in the C.I.A., in part by claiming that they were still receiving good information from her and that agents could sometimes get confused about whom they were primarily working for. Leung had, in fact, been allowed, even ordered, to relay some information back to the Chinese. That the information she passed along had not been cleared by U.S. authorities was simply evidence of her confusion about her role. The government concurred, and Leung continued to be used and paid by the F.B.I for her work. Of the $1.7 million paid to Leung by the government, over $900,000 was paid to her after it was known that she was transmitting intelligence back to China. (Similarly ridiculous, one of Smith’s fawning superiors actually ran into Smith and Leung at the airport returning together from an illicit getaway in England but failed to find anything suspicious about the pair’s trip due to Smith’s reputation as a stellar agent­—one which, as noted before, was primarily based on the fact that he had recruited Leung.)

Ultimately, the affairs between Leung and Smith, and Leung and Cleveland, were discovered through an investigation by Les Wiser, and the participants all faced severe prosecution for their roles in disseminating classified information back to China. However, this discovery did not happen until Leung had been operating as a double agent for over 20 years. Further, due to the vagaries of the Justice Department and the difficulty in successfully prosecuting espionage cases, none of the players in this case ended up serving any jail time despite compromising national security for over two decades.

The outcome of this case stands in direct opposition to one of the other cases detailed by Wise, the Ethereal Throne case. This case, which was also led by J.J. Smith, began when an F.B.I. informant accused Jeffrey Wang, an engineer at Raytheon with security clearance, of passing information back to China. Wang lost his job and security clearance, his property was seized by the FBI, and he found himself with no real recourse except to turn to a family friend named Denise Woo, a decorated FBI agent.Woo, acting under orders from her superiors, accepted Wang’s request for help and tried to gain his confidence in order to figure out what information had been passed and to whom. In this case, it turned out that Wang had never done anything wrong. The F.B.I.’s informant was a distant relative of Wang’s who carried a grudge against him. The charges against Wang were dropped, and he eventually regained his security clearance. However, Woo was ultimately indicted on five felony counts for allegedly revealing some information about the informant to Wang. (Wise speculates that, due to the language of her indictments, the charges sprang from Woo asking Wang if it might have been someone in his family.) She eventually bargained her case down to probation, but lost her job at the F.B.I.

Tiger Trap is filled with such tales, and one has to wonder at their collective significance. Several of the cases in Wise’s book concern information that, while classified for a short period of time, was rather quickly declassified, published in various periodicals, or available online. This is where the absurdity of all counter-intelligence efforts appears most stark. Mutually assured destruction kept nuclear war at bay throughout the entire Cold War. In a world that has rapidly changed to the point where a cyber-attack on the nation’s power grid would be potentially more devastating than either a conventional war or a rogue nuclear attack, the limits and counter-intelligence of human intelligence gathering might have been reached.


James Arnett