- David Wiselongtime investigative journalist focusing on the intelligence community. His latest book is titled Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China. His other books include The Invisible Government, The Spy Who Got Away, The American Police State and The Politics of Lying.
Vice President Joe Biden arrived in China yesterday to begin a five-day trip aimed at reassuring leaders there of the stability of the U.S. economy and to begin building a relationship with that country’s most likely next president, Xi Jinping. The visit to the largest foreign creditor to the United States falls right after the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, and just days after the Financial Times reported that Pakistan gave Chinese officials access to the wreckage of the top-secret U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed in the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad during the U.S. raid in May. According to the report, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official said Chinese engineers were allowed to photograph the wreckage and retrieve a sample of the special stealth “skin” that allowed the helicopter to enter Pakistan undetected by radar. Meanwhile, Chinese officials have recently complained to the United States about its continued surveillance flights near the Chinese coast. But Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, has vowed to continue the flights, which include the use of U-2 spy planes. To discuss the role espionage plays in the complex relationship between China and the United States, we speak with prominent national intelligence journalist David Wise, author of the new book “Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China.” [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Vice President Joe Biden arrived in China yesterday to begin a five-day trip aimed at reassuring leaders there of the stability of the U.S. economy and to begin building a relationship with that country’s most likely next president, Xi Jinping.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As the two largest economies in the world, at the moment when the world economic circumstance is uneasy, I think we hold the key, together, to not only our own prosperity, but to generate a growth in jobs worldwide.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The visit to the largest foreign creditor to the United States falls right after the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. The People’s Republic of China is estimated to hold over $2 trillion of U.S. debt, out of the total U.S. debt of just over $14.5 trillion.
The visit also falls just days after the Financial Times reported that Pakistan gave Chinese officials access to the wreckage of the top-secret U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed in the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad during the U.S. raid in May. According to the report, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official said Chinese engineers were allowed to photograph the wreckage and retrieve a sample of the special stealth “skin” that allowed the helicopter to enter Pakistan undetected by radar.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials have recently complained to the United States about its continued surveillance flights near the Chinese coast. But Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, has vowed to continue the flights, which include the use of U-2 spy planes.
AMY GOODMAN: The role espionage plays in the complex relationship between China and the United States has received relatively little attention. Our next guest has just written a detailed exposé on the continued success with which China has spied on the United States for decades, stealing some if its most closely guarded national secrets, including plans for advanced nuclear warheads.
David Wise is an award-winning, veteran reporter, served as the chief of the Washington bureau of the New York Herald Tribune, is author of 10 nonfiction books, numerous articles on the subject of spies and spying, along with several novels. The CIA itself even wrote a classified review of his second book, The Invisible Government, co-authored with Thomas Ross. Now declassified, the CIA reviewer complained that the authors “profess to believe that our secret attempts to meet the Communist challenge constitute so real a threat to our own freedoms that they must be exposed in as detailed and dramatic a way as possible.” Well, David Wise’s new book is called Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China. It, too, exposes, with detail and drama, China’s spying on the United States.
David Wise, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start with the news headlines. I want to start in Abbottabad with the U.S. military helicopter that crashed in Osama bin Laden’s compound and this report of the Financial Times that the Pakistanis gave the Chinese access to the remains of this helicopter.
DAVID WISE: Well, China is definitely interested in stealth technology. They unveiled their perhaps first stealth fighter some months ago. And it’s a fact that, as you know, stealth technology is highly classified in this country—the nature of the coating, the material that’s used, how many coats are used, how it’s applied. And that’s something that China is very interested in.
And we know this because there is a gentleman named Noshir Gowadia who was sentenced to 32 years a few months ago after he was caught helping China. He designed a stealth missile, a cruise missile that had stealth technology, so it would be very hard for—to detect in any way. Heat-seeking devices would not be able to detect it. So, he was caught doing that, and China was very interested in his designing that stealth technology for them. He also had worked on the stealth bomber, the B-2, and gave them information about that, as well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And David Wise, your book at least points to the fact that the United States government has been involved in quite a bit of bungling and incompetence when it comes to wrapping its arms around or dealing with the threat of spying from China. Could you talk about some of the key examples that you raise in your book?
DAVID WISE: Yes. That’s not always the case. They’ve caught a number of Chinese spies. But I do talk at length about a case called “Parlor Maid,” involving a prominent Chinese-American woman in Los Angeles named Katrina Leung. And “Parlor Maid” was her FBI code name. And she was having a romance, by the way, with the two FBI agents on the West Coast who were in charge of catching Chinese spies. Well, she worked for the FBI for a while, and then, somewhere along the line during the 20-year period, she began working for China. And China paid her money, as did the FBI. A lot of money. And she began taking FBI secrets that she had obtained from her FBI lover, who brought them to her house, and she would just take these documents out of his briefcase, apparently without his knowledge, and copy them. And that’s how the information was passed on to Beijing. And this went on for a long time. And even after the FBI discovered that she was working for Chinese intelligence, the MSS, which is their equivalent of the CIA, they continued to use her, knowing that she was cooperating with China.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about major differences in the way that China spies on the U.S. versus the U.S. attempts to spy on China, and the heavier reliance on human sources for their information.
DAVID WISE: Well, you know, China has been at this for—well, since, you know, maybe 24 centuries, since certainly 400 B.C. And the United States has been at the spy business since 1947, essentially. So, they—their culture is very patient. They have time to collect little bits of information and try to form a mosaic. And that’s the key. There is a story that if there were interest in a particular beach as a target—story is told within the FBI, and it is just a story, but it’s indicative—that the Russians would send in a submarine in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand; the Americans would send over a spy satellite and collect reams of data, which would be analyzed back in Washington; the Chinese would send in a thousand tourists, each with instructions to collect one grain of sand. They were told, when they got home to China, they should shake out their towels. And at the end of that time, China would know more about that beach than anyone else. So that kind of gives you—it is just a story, but it gives you some indication of how China likes to collect bits of information and then put it together to come up with a picture.
AMY GOODMAN: David Wise, the Pentagon has rejected China’s demand that all U.S. surveillance flights near China be halted after two Chinese fighter jets intercepted an American U-2 spy plane over the Taiwan Strait. Can you talk about the significance of this and how it fits into the whole secret spy war with China?
DAVID WISE: Well, it reminds me a little bit of Yogi Berra’s famous comment about déjà vu all over again, because my first book was called The U-2 Affair, and that was a long time ago, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union about 1,200 miles in, and President Eisenhower had to finally admit that it wasn’t a weather plane that had strayed off course, it was in fact a CIA plane. So, these flights along the borders, which went on for many years along the borders of the Soviet Union, and now China, are risky because they can lead to incidents that can increase tensions in the world. And I don’t doubt that these flights will continue and that these risks will be taken and then that, sooner or later, there will be another incident.
AMY GOODMAN: You also, David Wise, have a very interesting story about President Nixon. People know about President Nixon’s famous trip to China, how the whole relationship—he changed the whole relationship between the U.S. and China. But you also have some personal stories to tell about President Nixon.
DAVID WISE: Well, it’s kind of interesting. Before he became president, during the 1960s, between the time he was vice president and president, he was a private attorney and would visit Hong Kong frequently on business. And somewhere along the line there, he met a very beautiful woman who was a hostess in The Den, which was the big hangout in the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong. And some kind of relationship developed. She says—and I found her, tracked her down and interviewed her. Nice lady. She says that it was simply one night that Nixon asked, you know, sort of, “What are you doing after the show?” And she and a girlfriend went to his hotel room in Hong Kong, and there was Bebe Rebozo, whom Nixon introduced, she said, as his secretary. Well, Bebe was his traveling pal and—from Key Biscayne, Florida. And she said that was it. That was the only incident that night. However, she also, in an interview many years ago that she gave to the New York Times, she said that she had known Nixon for several years, that every time he came to Hong Kong, he would meet with her, knew her. And so, this creates a conflict between what she had said years ago and what she’s willing to say now. I let the reader judge for himself or herself as to what the nature of that relationship was, but it was kind of interesting. She does say she was in a hotel room with this other girl, who was a hostess at The Den, with Nixon. And then she came to the United States and settled, of all places, in Whittier, California, which was Nixon’s hometown. And when he died, she told me that she visited his grave. So, they were friends, at the very least.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us about the W88, a weapon I don’t think very many Americans have ever heard of.
DAVID WISE: Well, that’s probably the most important bit of weaponry that China ever obtained from the United States. The W88 is the most advanced, sophisticated missile that the United States has in its arsenal. It’s very small, which is the point. It can fit—several of them can fit into—on top of a Trident missile on the Trident submarine, which is one of the important legs of the triad of American nuclear defense. And somewhere along the line several years ago, China acquired the design of the W88, which was, of course, highly classified, very secret. And they got it.
Well, at first, Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist, was suspected of leaking it, and there was no evidence that he had done so. He was very harshly treated. He was in solitary for nine months. He got an apology from the federal judge. I reveal in the book that a four-year investigation, a massive investigation, then took place of, well, how did China get this design? And at the end of the four years—and by the way, it was code-named SEGO PALM, which I reveal in the book. And at the end of the four years, unfortunately, the FBI and the 11 agencies of the government, 300 people that took part in this investigation that I reveal in Tiger Trap, did not come up with any answer as to how China had acquired the design, where the leak had come from, how they stole it or acquired it. Was simply—is simply not known to this day.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Wise, we thank you very much for being with us, investigative journalist focusing on the intelligence community. His latest book is called Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China.