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Book Review: The Spy Within – Larry Chin and China’s Penetration of the CIA by Tod Hoffman

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The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China’s Penetration of the CIA presents the story of Larry Chin, a Chinese national from a middle-class family who displayed a knack for English at college and went on to become a Federal Broadcast Information Service employee, then a U.S. citizen, and ultimately a trusted CIA employee with a security clearance above Top Secret. Oh, and he was also a spy.

Any person who applies to work in a high security job, whether it be with a national agency or with a contractor, goes through an extensive background check by federal officers. The average time to complete the checks necessary to grant a person a Top Secret clearance takes around two years. Once these hurdles are jumped, however, the person becomes a trusted member of an elite group with access to everything he has a “need to know.” The need to know can be a cumbersome process, annoying at best, frustrating at worst, but it’s the best system available. Essentially what “need to know” means is, while you may have the proper clearances to know about a project or operation, if you’re not working on that project, or if you don’t have a compelling need to refer to or learn about it, then forget it, because it ain’t gonna happen.

Larry’s knack for English turned into a genuine scholar’s knowledge of both languages, and over the years, as he climbed the FBIS ladder, then the CIA ladder, he became the “go to” guy for any translations where pinpoint accuracy was the goal. And, face it, a large part of what the CIA and other agencies of its ilk do, does, in fact, require pinpoint accuracy. It wouldn’t do to deny a person a clearance, or miscalculate, or err, when one is dealing with the potential of human life or national policy in the balance. And similar to nuances in the English language, nuance and context are equally important in translation. When an American says, “Yeah. Right.” is it meant literally, or whimsically, or sarcastically? Remember – nuance and context.

In his formative years in a Chinese society, Larry was exposed to the custom of guanxi, which is a network of relationships that become indispensible in day-to-day life, especially in a difficult life, as China was in the 1940s. Similar to the American practice of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It’s indispensable in day-to-day life, and it’s critical in bureaucratic dealings. As the saying goes, the government works at two speeds: "slow," and "stop." Those are our choices, unless we know somebody who can speed things up for us. And when that happens, the recipient of the favor is put in an “I owe you one” status. Guanxi is very similar to that, and while a person isn’t legally bound to return the favor, it is a formidable obligation that cannot be broken. Sort of like what it used to mean in this country to give one’s word. “Your word is your bond,” was a phrase often used. A handshake was accepted as a business contract. But in these days of legal wrangling over the meaning of the word “is,” as exemplified not long ago by a sitting U.S. President, well… even the law is no longer the law, in many cases.

But in China and many other places in the world, these types of contracts are an everyday occurrence, and are engraved in stone, unbreakable. So, when somebody did Larry a favor in his early life, he was bound to return the favor, if humanly possible. This return of the favor may come in the form of a simple task done for the owed person, or it could be a favor for a friend of the owed person, if the owed person asks. Or even a friend of the friend of the person owed. And it was guanxi that ultimately got Larry into this whole mess.

The Spy Within gives a detailed explanation of what led up to Larry Chin becoming a spy for the Peoples’ Republic of China, along with the investigation that began with a vague but actionable tip. The source of the tip was “golden,” guaranteed. But because of the informant’s situation, the FBI, the agency charged with investigating this matter, was not permitted to talk or otherwise question the person. Actually, the FBI was not allowed to know anything at all about the source, and further, the informant’s actual words used to pass on the tip were paraphrased by the CIA, so as not to impart any info at all about him or her. Another example of where nuance and context could have been helpful, but was overridden by security concerns.

In any event, the detail that the FBI assigned to the case worked very strenuously over a two-year period, attempting to locate the spy. Being unable to check against names on flights the spy supposedly took, their mission was much closer to impossible than possible. But they did it with a combination of their hard work and luck. Once they were able to tag a name onto the suspect, their job became a much more routine, but just as difficult a task. The spy had managed to keep under the radar for the most part, so even after a lengthy investigation with his name in hand, they still had an extremely difficult time. It got to the point where the FBI manager in charge of the team had to make a decision. It was far from a slamdunk, but the team had expended thousands of manhours in the case and it was time to fish or cut bait, as the saying goes.

And this is the point where a lot of luck came into play. The FBI, simply put, didn’t have enough to hang the suspect. They weren’t ever sure they could make a case, because there was not one piece of physical evidence in existence that could directly implicate their suspect. Everything was circumstantial, so with a good lawyer, which he’d probably secure, and with a good display of the intelligence and sense that he’d already shown by not leaving any hard clues, it was time for some high-stakes poker. Bluff, in other words. They had one chance, and only once chance to pull it off.

And that’s where the FBI really earned their pay, by managing to pull it off. Several times throughout the “interview,” as it was called, with Larry Chin, they were on the edge of being counter-bluffed. They prevailed however. And when Chin began telling his story, it was all the FBI agents could do to keep a straight face. Chin took a sip of his tea, then said, “In 1948…”

The agents were dumbfounded. They had absolutely no idea that Chin’s treachery had begun so long ago.

This much of Larry Chin’s story takes up about the first half of the book; the remainder covers his confession and his trial, and events immediately preceding and following the trial. It’s unfortunate that even though Chin gave the prosecution plenty with which to convict him, they were denied a lengthy debrief by Chin’s suicide behind bars. Once a person is convicted and has either no chance of, or has exhausted, his appeals, is the opportune time for debriefers to show their skill. Extricating all the details, major and minor, is where the debriefers have the best chance to glean the information that gives them a lead into what improvements can be made to correct any deficiencies in their operations; to put names to enemy agents; to put locations to places where meetings may have taken place; and all the other thousands of details that could ultimately save a life someday. Even if only one life were saved, it would be cost-effective.

I saw no indication in The Spy Within that Chin’s backstory was still being worked, but I’m sure it is. It may not be front-burner material any longer, but like the recent prominent news on John Walsh’s son’s kidnapper and killer being found, even though he was long dead, those responsible for the investigation never gave up; they still chipped away at it.

Hoffman’s writing style may take some people a little getting used to in several ways, but once you’ve done so, the story flows nicely. I appreciate his dry wit and terse style, and his occasional use of sarcasm adds to the story.

I don’t find a lot of use, however, in reiterating the court testimony, and so that’s an annoyance on my part. I feel it should be summarized as succinctly as possible because, face it, a lot of what the lawyers do in the course of a high-stakes trial is posturing, plain and simple. They tend to introduce drama wherever possible in order to strengthen their case, and they tend to repeat questions and circumstances in slightly different language in order to drive certain points home in the jurors’ minds. Court testimony is, to me, the ultimate yawn factor. Certainly there are points that should be included, particularly in this story, but for the sake of the reader, summarize.

Since Chin took his own life before any in-depth debriefing, I can see where there would be a paucity of detail available for the author to include, and therefore I can see to some extent including the court testimony. Also, very little was included about Chin’s wife and family, and perhaps the author may have been able to fill out more of this history. Since I don’t know the circumstances of his research, however, that’s pure speculation on my part. Perhaps the wife and family had no desire to speak with him. But even so, that in itself would have added to the story.

One other angle of the story that was introduced and briefly described was the inter- and the intra-service rivalry among the agencies involved, mainly CIA and the FBI. This is something that’s in the news on a regular basis today, and has been for as long as I can recall. When it comes down to it, there’s very little good that can come of this rivalry. I’m fully aware that budget dollars are at stake, but that’s no reason for the players to act like they’re on different teams. Their actions should be in tandem, working toward solving the problem, getting the bad guys, or whatever the mission is, rather than one-upping the perceived opposition. Hang the tag name “opposition” on those who truly are opposing, not your fellow countrymen. The results will be impressive.

Finally, The Spy Within would have been much the richer for inclusion of any subsequent details and discoveries the FBI managed to acquire since Chin’s death. Even if this turned out to be nothing, I feel it would have been worthwhile to include it. As in the example of the wife and family, even if the author had the door slammed in his face, that in itself would have added to the story.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • wmackem

    will read book. trust it mentions the santa rosa station. also his marxist professor, and 1942 affiliation with the “u.s. armt liaison service” in china circa 1942. suicide? prove it.