November 13, 2000

Beijing's spies gain access to secrets

'Panda huggers' tilt U.S. policy

By Bill Gertz

Missteps and appeasement by the U.S. government helped China develop into a dangerous global power, according to "The China Threat: How the People's Republic Targets America" (Regnery), a new book by Bill Gertz, national security reporter for The Washington Times. In the first of three excerpts, he details the hunt for Chinese spies burrowed deep inside the U.S. government.

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.
-- Sun Tzu
Ancient Chinese strategist

In the early 1990s, the FBI came across evidence that amounted to a counterspy's worst nightmare: Classified reports showed communist China was running several ``assets'' - spies, in the vernacular - who operated clandestinely inside the U.S. government.

One spy, however, was different from the others. He didn't work for just any agency. He had burrowed deep inside the U.S. intelligence community, meaning that the People's Republic of China had access to vital secrets.

The information was revealed to FBI counterintelligence agents in highly sensitive communications intercepts between the Chinese Embassy in Washington and Chinese intelligence officers in Beijing. The intercepts suggested the agent was supplying the Chinese with classified defense information.

The spy's code name was ``Ma'' - Chinese for ``horse.''

A Chinese government official who defected to the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 also told U.S. intelligence that China had successfully developed five to 10 clandestine sources of information here.

The defector said these agents were known as ``Dear Friends'' of China. And one had access to the most sensitive U.S. intelligence data, known as Top Secret-Sensitive Compartmented Information, or SCI.

FBI counterintelligence agents' search for this Chinese ``mole'' led to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon's intelligence arm. A key suspect emerged: Ronald Montaperto.

At the time, Mr. Montaperto was a senior DIA analyst specializing in ``estimates,'' or analyses, of matters related to China and East Asia. His job required making official contacts with Chinese government and military officials. In Washington, that meant defense attaches posted to the Chinese Embassy.

Chinese defense attaches are officers who work for the military intelligence department of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff. One was PLA Maj. Gen. Yu Zhenghe, the air attache, who had developed a close relationship with Mr. Montaperto - close enough to be invited to his wedding in 1990.

This hunt for a Chinese mole was rare for the FBI. Most of the other moles uncovered inside the U.S. government during the 1980s, in what became known as the ``Decade of the Spy,'' were spies for the Soviet Union. There was one exception: A Chinese intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 1985 identified a Chinese language specialist for the U.S. government as a spy.

The defector was Yu Qiangsheng, a senior intelligence officer in the Ministry of State Security. Mr. Yu had extensive access to information about Chinese intelligence operations and agents. It was Mr. Yu who first put a CIA counterspy on to Larry Wu-Tai Chin, the Chinese language specialist, who worked for the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service. The service publishes translations of foreign news publications and broadcasts.

Mr. Yu, who was resettled in the United States, remains under federal protection. He fears for his life because of Beijing agents.

Mr. Chin eventually was unmasked. He had burrowed within the CIA for about 30 years, passing valuable political intelligence to Beijing. He was a rare catch, but before he could be interrogated thoroughly for ``damage assessment,'' he committed suicide in his jail cell.

After the bloody military crackdown on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, several other Chinese intelligence officers defected, determined to help the United States defeat the Communist government. Two had worked inside the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

The defectors' information helped to confirm and update what Mr. Yu had provided years earlier. They explained the care with which Chinese intelligence contacted and serviced its clandestine agents. For instance, intelligence officers never met their agents inside the United States because the FBI was considered too good at catching spies. It was safer to meet abroad, preferably in China.

These defectors had access to intelligence reports - sent from the embassy to Ministry of State Security headquarters in China - that revealed that Chinese intelligence had recruited several agents who were referred to as ``Dear Friends.'' The Dear Friends were rewarded for valuable intelligence with paid trips to China, business opportunities there and prestige-building access to senior Chinese officials.

From their knowledge of the Chinese Embassy's intelligence cables, the defectors were able to tell U.S. intelligence debriefers about details China obtained from the Dear Friends. The U.S. counterspies were troubled that large amounts of extremely sensitive military intelligence was being provided to China.

Based on the defectors' testimony, the FBI began a major espionage probe.

The bureau came up with a list of 12 suspects that fit the profile of the Dear Friend with access to U.S. military secrets.

During systematic ``interviews'' of each suspect, FBI agents met with Mr. Montaperto in late 1991 or early 1992. At the time, he was chief of DIA's estimates branch for China, a job he held from September 1989 until his departure in February 1992. He had joined DIA as an analyst in October 1981 and worked his way up.

Intelligence intercepts of Chinese government communications gathered by the National Security Agency and supplied to the FBI later revealed that one of the most important agents being run by Chinese intelligence was code-named Ma.

FBI agents eventually confronted Mr. Montaperto during what the bureau called ``hostile interrogations'' over the course of three meetings. They asked bluntly whether he had passed classified intelligence information to China's intelligence service.

No, Mr. Montaperto replied. He said any contacts with Chinese intelligence were authorized. He did conceded to the DIA that he knew Gen. Yu, the Chinese intelligence officer.

The FBI cleared Mr. Montaperto, though some counterintelligence officials still suspected he was Ma but couldn't prove it. The matter was put to rest conclusively, Mr. Montaperto said.

``I can honestly say they looked me in the eye and said, `We don't think you're a spy,' '' he said of the meetings with FBI agents.

But soon after the investigation, Mr. Montaperto left the DIA. In an interview with this reporter, he said the FBI probe had nothing to do with his departure. As for his friendship with Gen. Yu, he said: ``One does not have friends with Chinese officials'' - meaning his contacts were strictly professional.

``Did General Yu attend your wedding?'' this reporter asked. ``Yes,'' Mr. Montaperto said.

It was a relatively small wedding, he said, because it was his second marriage. He said he invited Gen. Yu and other Chinese officials because he thought it would be a good experience for them.

Hanging on the wall inside Mr. Montaperto's office was a large scroll of Chinese calligraphy. It contained the characters ``horse dragon virtue,'' which when spoken in Mandarin sound like ``Montaperto.'' A second set of characters on the scroll are Chinese for ``war horse.''

The scroll is signed by a Chinese intelligence officer, who, like Yu Zhenghe, was an attache at the Chinese Embassy in Washington when Mr. Montaperto received the scroll as a gift. Mr. Montaperto says a student in Shanghai gave it to him.

The FBI never found the clandestine spy known as Ma. The bureau did uncover several Dear Friends, but did not seek prosecution. The FBI was hamstrung by the limited details provided by the former Chinese intelligence officers, who had seen the cables but did not have hard copies.

One Chinese agent was a Chinese-American employee at a U.S. defense contractor in Northern Virginia. Although he was not prosecuted, his access to classified information was cut off.

Mr. Montaperto next went to work at the Pentagon's National Defense University at Fort McNair, a scenic base overlooking the Potomac River in Southwest Washington. He became a ``social science analyst'' with the university's Institute for National Strategic Studies, a think tank for security issues.

Mr. Montaperto's biography as posted on the university's Internet site contains only four sentences and makes no mention of his DIA experience. It states only that he is a China affairs specialist: ``Currently he is defining strategies and policies for managing future U.S. interests in the Asia- Pacific region.''

Because the FBI could not prove its suspicions, Mr. Montaperto was allowed to retain his top-secret security clearance. But he does not have the same access to intelligence information as he had at DIA.

Gen. Yu, meanwhile, remains one of China's most important intelligence officers. He works for Gen. Xiong Guangkai, the PLA's deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

According to one U.S. national security official, Gen. Xiong returned to the United States in 1996 during the Taiwan Strait crisis and tried to meet Mr. Montaperto. The crisis was prompted by test firings of Chinese missiles near Taiwan; the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.

Mr. Montaperto's primary job at the government's National Defense University is to oversee the China portion of an annual ``Strategic Assessment,'' to speak on China policy around the world and to organize an occasional conference on China. His pronounced pro-China view plays down that nation's military capabilities, specifically its development of strategic and conventional forces.

But Mr. Montaperto says he is no ``panda hugger,'' using the derogatory term China specialists at the Pentagon employ for soft-liners.

``For some people, I will always be considered a panda hugger,'' he added.

When Congress ordered creation of a National Defense University clearinghouse for intelligence on the People's Liberation Army, Mr. Montaperto presented the plan to the Pentagon. It called for hiring 33 specialists, opening a large office in Southwest and spending $4.5 million a year.

At first the Pentagon rejected the plan because it appeared to promote military-to-military contacts with the PLA rather than provide useful information about the strategy and direction of the Chinese military.

The Clinton administration already had dramatically increased meetings and exchanges with Chinese military leaders, which the Chinese exploited to develop intelligence. Many in the Pentagon had had enough of that, and senior officials objected to Mr. Montaperto's appointment as director of the new center. But the university named him director anyway.

The importance of the center was highlighted when Mr. Clinton opposed the requirement to set it up.

By mandating the center and reports on China's military buildup, Congress assumes ``an outcome that is far from foreordained - that China is bent on becoming a military threat to the United States,'' the president said in signing a $289 billion defense bill in October 1999. ``I believe we should not make it more likely that China will choose this path by acting as if the decision has already been made.''

Yet the president's policies and those of the soft-liners who refused to recognize the nature of the People's Republic of China had done more to increase the danger from China than any of the skeptics in Congress who believed more should be done to learn about the Communist regime's military intentions.

Mr. Montaperto's minimizing of the threat is at one with Chinese military policy, which involves deception - preventing the U.S. ``hegemon'' from recognizing China's emerging power until it is greater, at least regionally, than that of the United States.

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said China must avoid provoking a conflict with the United States until China has the military, economic and political power to win.

In the words of Mr. Deng: ``Hide brightness; nourish obscurity.'' Or as the official translation in Beijing put it, ``Bide our time and build up our capabilities.''

Chinese military writings predict a ``dangerous decade'' - when that nation faces a strategic checkmate - between 2020 and 2030. By 2020, the United States will not be able to ignore China's growing might. But China's military and strategic planners fear their country will not be powerful enough to take on the United States until 2030.

What China wanted was three more decades of Clinton-style ``engagement,'' a policy that downplays Chinese military capabilities, encourages decreasing U.S. defense spending and gives China major technical and financial boosts. Chinese officials view certain specialists in the United States as important outlets for Beijing's views. Many of these China specialists are current or former government officials.

Unlike the thousands of political scientists who specialize in European and Russian affairs, the China experts who specialize in international security and foreign affairs could fit in a large conference room. And most of them communicate via Internet discussion groups, a major target of influence exerted by the Chinese government.

Take ``Chinasec.'' Every morning, a group of about 100 high-level U.S. policy-makers and intelligence officials receives e-mail postings as part of this Internet discussion group, whose innocuous-sounding name stands for ``China security.''

The informal electronic gathering includes some of the most important China policy-makers in the U.S. government, including the Pentagon's desk officer for China matters, Col. John Corbett. The group is decidedly pro- China and often criticizes news articles - in particular this reporter's work for The Washington Times - that explore Chinese weapons sales to rogue states or espionage against the United States.

For instance, when The Times reported on the critical views of China held by Condoleeza Rice, a key foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, Chinasec swung into action. The e-mail network adopted the standard posture of the Clinton administration: spin. It dismissed the article as exaggerated and the work of a ``nonexpert.''

Chinasec's on-line discussion group is secret, but not in the sense of that term denoted by the U.S. government classification. Most of Chinasec's participants hold high-level security clearances. At least 10 CIA officials are members.

Chinasec is part of an informal but powerful network of current and former officials, academics and other China experts who exert a major influence on U.S. policies toward China.

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote that ``supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.''

The view of China presented by these pro-Beijing specialists is not manufactured by the Chinese Communist Politburo, but it serves the Politburo's strategy. The key theme of the propaganda directed abroad is simple: China is not a threat.

The theme is central to the Chinese Communist Party's overt and covert influence efforts. It is the litmus test for those experts that Beijing labels ``Friends of China.'' And it was a constant refrain of the Clinton administration.

Despite the soft-line approach, a public opinion poll last year showed that Mr. Clinton's policy of engagement had not convinced the majority of the American people that China is a benign power.

The results of the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, published in September 1999, indicate that 60 percent to 80 percent consider China to be an ``adversary,'' not a strategic partner.

(c) 2000 News World Communications, Inc.