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The Recurring Shock of Chinese Espionage: A Short History of Collective Amnesia

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COMMENTARY by Susan Katz Keating

When the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a hearing this week to address Chinese malign influence inside the United States, lawmakers ought to be given a cache of memory assistance devices. Perhaps that will stop them from succumbing anew to the amnesia that has plagued our China-watchers for decades.  

I first heard about this collective memory lapse in the mid-1980’s, via my old friend, Robert Crowley. An expert on the Soviet KGB, Crowley had been the CIA’s assistant director for clandestine operations. When I knew him during the Cold War, Crowley was livid that our national secrets were being targeted by China – and that little was being done to guard the vaults. 

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China views the U.S. as a nation that leaves its gold in the streets, Crowley told me. And, he added, Beijing eagerly scoops up the unguarded treasure, such as it did during the Cold War.

In 1986, it emerged that a Chinese mole, Larry Wu-Tai Chin, had spent 30 years deeply burrowed within the CIA. He was a trusted employee who began working for the U.S. during World War II, when William Colby hired him to be an Army translator. Later, when Chin went to work for the CIA, he funneled valuable information to his true masters in Beijing. Chin was so good at deception that he only was caught when a defector revealed the truth. Colby himself told me that the revelation came as a total shock.

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While the CIA was freshly reeling from the Chin case, it emerged that China had stolen key technology on U.S. weapons systems. Again, the revelation came as a complete surprise. 

The 1980’s cases should have prompted intense reviews, revamps, and lockdowns. But China continued to get into – and out of – the secret vaults. 

Richard Shelby of Alabama raised the alarm in 1997, when he ran the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“China has also become the number one intelligence challenge of the Twenty-first Century,” Shelby said in a committee hearing.

The challenge remained unresolved.

In 1999, a House select committee run by Rep Christopher Cox (R-CA) found that the Peoples Republic of China stole information about warheads for weapons systems including the Minuteman II and III missiles.

In 2006, when Lockheed Martin employee Ko-Suen Moo was charged with trying to send an F-16 fighter jet engine, an AGM-129A cruise missile, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter engines, and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles to Beijing. 

Each time and afterwards, U.S. officials expressed shock and outrage. 

The people in charge of guarding our national secrets, it seems, are stuck in a half-century old time warp. During the Vietnam War and immediately afterwards, the U.S. focused on the threat from Soviet-era Moscow. A 1976 Senate hearing on foreign surveillance of American citizens did not mention China. The primary threat was the Soviet Union, up until it collapsed in 1991.

China meanwhile pressed on with spying against the United States. By 2011, author David Wise wrote in his book, Tiger Trap, that China is America’s “most formidable spy foe.” 

The spying continued. It fanned out into malign influence operations within the United States.

A former CIA officer, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, was arrested in 2020 on a charge that he conspired with a relative who also was a former CIA officer to send Top Secret information to the PRC.

That same year, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA) of the Select Committee on Intelligence sounded the alarm about Chinese influence operations overall.

“Beijing’s infiltration of U.S. society has been deliberate and insidious as they use every instrument of influence available to accelerate their rise at America’s expense,” the senators wrote in a joint statement.

“This is our watershed moment and we must stand our ground,” they wrote.

Three years later, it emerges that we have not stood our ground firmly enough. In 2023, there was another “watershed moment” in the form of the Chinese spy balloon incident. Or should I say, incidents. Several balloons entered U.S. air space undetected because NORAD has a “domain awareness gap,” according to the agency’s commander, Gen. Glen VanHerck.

During my long-ago conversations with Crowley, the old spy chief told me the Peoples Republic of China believes that the U.S. is unable or unwilling to learn from its own lapses. But we cannot afford to forget the incursions and espionage.

The Senate hearing on Chinese malign influence operations convenes Sept 27. Among the witnesses is Alan Kohler, the former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. The senators need to pay attention and listen carefully. They also should bring their notebooks, fish oil supplements, polyphenols, or mnemonic devices – anything to help them once again remember the truth.

Susan Katz Keating is publisher and editor in chief of Soldier of Fortune. She has written frequently on Chinese espionage.

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