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Book Review: Tiger Trap: America’s Secret War With China by David Wise

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The problem started in April, 1991, with a tape made months earlier by the National Security Agency’s ‘big ears.’  The tape was an intercept of a conversation in Mandarin between a woman in Los Angeles and her Ministry of State Security controller (MSS, China’s intelligence service) in Beijing. The tape landed on the desk of Bill Cleveland, the chief of the Chinese counterintelligence squad in the FBI’s San Francisco office, who had recently returned from an official trip to China. While there, Cleveland had been startled and shaken to see Gwo Bao Min, whom Cleveland had pursued for the past ten years. Min was a former Livermore National Laboratory employee, which was one of two national laboratories in the U.S. that design nuclear weapons.

As shaken as Cleveland had been by this incident, it was only a precursor to the start he received with the NSA intercept. This particular case would ultimately lead to thousands of hours of investigative work involving many FBI agents and individuals from several other agencies. It would smear the careers of two career FBI agents, and lead to the exposure of some of the more unsavory measures to which the U.S. Government will sometimes resort when dealing with their own careerists.

The first few pages start with a bang, but then quickly settles into a lot of necessary background and detail to lay out the complicated matters to come.  It isn’t really until a good third of the way through that it picks up. But there’s more than being past the background, details and information that’s foreign to most of the public. It’s also because that’s when it seems that the manifold secrets that seem to be almost hemorrhaging are finally being taken seriously, concertedly and with the brain- and manpower that hadn’t been applied until now.

All it took was information received that showed China was now interested in having a say in the U.S. presidential election. It shouldn’t be any great surprise to anybody who even remotely follows politics: Until there’s enough ‘horsepower’ in the investigation — horsepower meaning high-level interest, or an agenda which could impact the big guys, the ‘horses,’ — the impetus just isn’t there. The attitude seems to be, go along to get along.  Don’t make waves.  Go with the flow, the ‘flow’ being, don’t shake things up.  Let’s not make this bigger than it has to be.  As one person said, “Small operations mean small problems.  Complicated operations mean complicated problems.  No operations mean no problems.”  That is the prevailing attitude in much of government politics today.

Or, as another said, ‘Don’t do things so badly, or so well, as to be noticed.’

But all that said, there is intense dedication shown by many of those involved in the investigation, and their labors sometimes turn up a chargeable offense, and some of those are brought to a suitable resolution.  For the most part, the men and women in the trenches do a commendable job.  It’s only when the investigations reach bureaucratic and political levels that the egregious errors begin showing up.  In some cases, these errors botch a case, earning unsatisfactory results in exchange for tens of thousands of hours of good, solid investigative work.

David Wise has been writing about intelligence and security matters for quite some time and has honed his craft. Tiger Trap is a broad overview with quite detailed sections on particular Chinese espionage cases.  One of the problems inherent in this type of book, however, is that much of the often thousands of pages in these case files is not freely accessible.  The consequences of not being able to access these classified pages means incomplete stories, with concomitant incomplete analysis and reporting, in some cases.  But Wise manages to pull those to which he could gain access to a suitable conclusion.

A large portion of the book covers the two FBI agents who went off the rails.  This was the infamous ‘Parlor Maid’ case, as it was known, involving FBI man James J. Smith, Katrina Leung, the Chinese double-agent, and FBI man William Cleveland.  Both men were sleeping with ‘Parlor Maid.’  There was plenty of news coverage while it was ongoing, of course, and Wise manages to give us a good summary, while adding many details that I don’t recall being covered in the press.

Another imposing aspect that is given just a few words is that much of Tiger Trap is concentrated on Chinese spying, which is the subject of this book, obviously, while barely mentioning the United States’ seemingly total concentration on the USSR and now Russia, and KGB spying in the recent past.  While America was barricading the front door against the Russians, the Chinese have been waltzing through the back door, almost unimpeded.  Now, of course, the roles have reversed, and the U.S. is belatedly concentrating on Chinese spying, while relegating the far-from-toothless current successor to the KGB to the ‘not-so-important’ pile.  In today’s world, there should not be a ‘not so important’ pile.  America’s continued existence literally depends on how these matters are addressed.

Overall, Tiger Trap is very readable and fact-filled, and Wise manages to spoon-feed most of it to us in ‘bite-size’ bits, thereby making it simpler to assimilate and comprehend.  It’s an excellent primer on Chinese spying in this country, and should be high on one’s reading list. Highly recommended.

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About Lou Novacheck