Revisiting the Year of the Spy

Super agent Larry Wu-Tai Chin’s ‘steely nerve is alive and well among China’s espionage’ fraternity

This article was originally published by ProPublica in its newsletter Not Shutting Up.

I started covering Chinese espionage back in 1985 in what was dubbed “the year of the spy.”

Over a remarkable period of months, United States authorities arrested a former National Security Agency employee, two members of the US Navy, a civilian Navy analyst, and a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Larry Wu-Tai Chin, the retired CIA analyst, was by far the most intriguing member of this rogues’ gallery.

He labored in an obscure corner of the agency, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, whose main job was to translate “open source” stories from foreign press outlets for use by the public and others in the government.

CIA officials decided to give translators like Chin access to the agency’s much larger cache of classified reports obtained through espionage so they could understand the government-controlled press in full context.

Chin was betrayed by a defector, and his backstory was a jaw-dropping example of how well China’s intelligence services played the long game.

College student

Born in Beijing, he was recruited by the Chinese government as a spy as a college student and began spying on the US during World War II, when he was hired as a translator by the US Army’s liaison office in China.

During the Korean conflict, he served as an Army interpreter, relaying information to China and deliberately mistranslating what captured Chinese soldiers were telling American interrogators.

Later, he joined the CIA and passed on information gleaned from agency documents that helped Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader, in his talks with President Richard Nixon.

I covered Chin’s trial in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, and became fascinated by China’s approach to espionage.

US intelligence officials told me that Chin’s story was characteristic of a spy agency with seemingly infinite resources and a strategic vision that stretched decades into the future.

One oft-repeated analogy: If China’s spy service wanted to get its hands on a beach, the saying went, they would send a phalanx of spies to steal it one grain of sand at a time.

This year, ProPublica’s veteran intelligence reporter, Sebastian Rotella, set out to take a look at the modern-day operations of Chinese intelligence on American soil.

Espionage agents

Much has changed since the 1980s, but the cinematic tale we recently published suggests the steely nerve of Larry Wu-Tai Chin is alive and well among China’s espionage agents.

The grains of sand analogy lives on, but as Sebastian and research reporter Kirsten Berg discovered, it’s been updated for the 21st century.

Rob Joyce, the National Security Agency’s recently appointed director of cybersecurity, told a conference in 2019 that Russia’s intelligence operations were like a hurricane that “comes in fast and hard.”

He added: “China, on the other hand, is climate change – long, slow, pervasive.”

Inside the entrance to the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA. Photo: Flickr

Sebastian and Kirsten’s story focused on what China calls Operation Fox Hunt, a long-running global campaign in which Chinese agents have tracked down more than 8,000 people who fled the country rather than face criminal charges.

In some countries, the Chinese authorities have followed the law, in others, they have simply abducted their prey. Undercover Fox Hunt teams have stalked, harassed, or coerced hundreds of people in the United States, including US citizens and legal residents.

“The targets are not murderers or drug lords,” Sebastian wrote, “but Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused – justifiably and not – of financial crimes. Some of them have set up high-rolling lives overseas with lush mansions and millions in offshore accounts. But others are dissidents, whistleblowers, or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.”

The larger message China’s President Xi Jinping is sending, US intelligence officials told us, is that there is no safe haven anywhere on earth for Chinese people who offend the ruling party.

The Fox Hunters appear well-versed in one of the basic techniques in the espionage playbook: psychological blackmail.

Soviet operatives

During the Cold War, American and Soviet operatives would scheme to catch a well-placed official in a compromising position with, say, a prostitute. The “honey trap” would then be snapped shut with the offer to become a spy or face disgrace and ruin.

In Fox Hunt, the favored tactic for coercion involves pressuring relatives and family members who remain in China.

Sebastian recounts the tale of Hu Ji, a cop from Wuhan who plots to deploy an “emotional bomb” that he hopes will persuade a purported fugitive living in New Jersey to fly home voluntarily.

Things don’t work out as planned, but to find out more, you’ll have to read the story. When it comes to spy stories, Not Shutting Up is a spoiler-free zone.

Sebastian’s account of Ji’s operations makes for quite a saga, and that’s no coincidence. Sebastian is a novelist in his spare time and has written three books so far.

Border patrol

The most recent, Rip Crew, centers on the exploits of Valentine Pescatore, a former Border Patrol agent asked to look into a mysterious massacre of migrant women in a motel room. Sebastian, Kirsten, and their editor, Tracy Weber, set out to tell a serious story about Chinese operations in the US with the narrative force of a good spy novel.

Sebastian points out that writing journalism with the eye of a novelist is a challenge. The very things that make compelling fiction – the protagonist’s inner thoughts, the tiny but telling details that bring a scene to life – are scarce in court records and interviews.

“The work of counterintelligence is so difficult to get people to talk about,” he told me. “These kinds of human details are hard to get and we have to be absolutely scrupulous about our facts in what we say.’’

While I’m keeping spoilers about Hu Ji out of this column, it seems fair that I share how the Larry Chin story ended. After a lengthy trial, the jury convicted Chin of espionage after deliberating for less than four hours.

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A few days after Chin’s conviction, his lawyer called me and Caryle Murphy, a reporter from The Washington Post, to interview him in a local lockup. Chin had not yet been sentenced but was certain to spend the rest of his life in federal prison.

A tall, thin man with hunched shoulders, the 63-year-old Chin told us it was “easy” to evade CIA security since he was never searched when he left the agency’s building.

He cheerfully said he planned to use the remaining years of his life to write a memoir and justified his spying as an effort to bolster the pragmatic faction in China that wanted closer ties with the US.

(He did not mention the payments he received that enabled him to gamble frequently and buy more than 30 apartment buildings in Baltimore.)

“When I think about what I have accomplished – the improvement of the livelihood of 1 billion Chinese people – my imprisonment for life is a very small price to pay,” he said. “It was worth it. I have nothing to regret.”

Good spirits

Caryle and I left the building and agreed it was one of the weirdest interviews either of us had ever conducted. We were both baffled by Chin’s seeming good spirits and talk of the future.

It was unusual for someone convicted of a crime to give interviews before they were sentenced.

Ten days later, a Justice Department official called me with startling news. Chin had been found that morning in his cell dead by apparent suicide.

I covered a fair number of spies in those years, but never really had a fix on Chin. He was motivated by ideology, but he clearly enjoyed the money he earned from espionage and he clearly loved to gamble.

Some of the agents who worked the case thought that was part of his cover – it explained why he had more assets and cash than a typical CIA analyst.

Other agents believed he simply enjoyed it. In my brief interaction with him, I detected a fair amount of ego in his delight in outsmarting both his American bosses and his Chinese handlers.

Top-secret report

Chin retired from the CIA in 1981 but continued to collect payments from Beijing for his spying.

At one point, he testified, he translated parts of The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford’s 1982 best-selling book on the NSA, and filed it as if it were a top-secret report he’d obtained from his American contacts.

His bosses, he said, were pleased to have an inside look at the super-secret eavesdropping agency.

Stephen Engelberg is ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and served as founding managing editor from 2008–2012.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.