Friday, June 30, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand?

Blogging activities have been sidetracked due to press o’ business, so I’m late in acknowledging and thanking Laura Rozen for alerting the blogosphere to Soyoung Ho’s unflattering Washington Monthly profile of the Pentagon’s top China hand, Michael Pillsbury, entitled Panda Slugger.

In fact, Kevin Drum also linked to Ho’s article before I got around to posting on it, a sure sign that I’m way behind the China-blogging curve.

I’m not averse to the anti-Blue team snark which pervades Ho’s article. Pillsbury comes out looking like quite the blowhard, equally intent on inflating his importance, his academic credentials, and the China threat.

But I don’t want to set up an “us vs. them” “left vs. right” “blue team vs. panda hugger” dichotomy. In fact, it’s an interesting and important characteristic of the China debate that China watchers don’t split neatly into two camps.

It’s something that apparently frustrates Mr. Pillsbury. In testimony before Congress in 2000, he said plaintively:

…the China field itself has some unusual features. Its members don't like to disagree with each other in public. We all like to pretend that we think the same way and we are moderate and objective, and this cheats outsiders from a rigorous debate where somebody would say, you are a panda hugger, and somebody else would say, you are a McCarthyite.

Well, I personally hope that the rigorous debate about China does not end up looking like a crapfight in a monkey house.

China is complicated. It still defies efforts to simplify it—and frustrates attempts to achieve the moral clarity needed to mobilize public opinion, set armies on the march, or even push an agenda up Capitol Hill.

As China is concerned, I think the elements on the right rely excessively on the containment era assumptions that George Kennan defined in his seminal 1946 article in Foreign Affairs,
The Sources of Soviet Conduct.

Writing under the cool pseudonym X, Kennan declared that hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable—and containment inescapable—because the Soviet Union needed an external enemy to justify the domestic repression necessary to preserve its ever-tottering empire.

But there is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home…

…Today the major part of the structure of Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls. And the millions of human beings who form that part of the structure of power must defend at all costs this concept of Russia's position, for without it they are themselves superfluous.

This doctrine had more than a grain of truth in it, and it was incredibly useful as well. It was a politician’s dream Declaring that pure Soviet psychosis drove the Cold War made questioning the moral and intellectual foundations of American policy a less than legitimate field of intellectual endeavor—unless you were interested in being labeled a Comsymp, fellow traveler, or worse.

The doctrine has also been applied to China.

Testifying before the same committee as Pillsbury in 2000, Arthur Waldron testified:

All of us will recall, of course, in 1947 a rising young diplomat with great expertise on Russia wrote a paper which made his reputation, in which he argued that the problem with the Soviet Union and the reason that it was behaving in a hostile manner toward the United States was not what we had done, but rather it was the type of regime that the Soviet Union had. This was an unelected authoritarian regime that relied on oppression of its own people. Such regimes, in order to justify what they do, have to have enemies. If you have Hitler, it is fairly easy to convince the Russians that there is an enemy and they will pull together, but once Hitler is defeated you have a problem. You no longer have an external enemy. People in Russia start saying, shouldn't we have a better standard of living and more freedom? Well, you can give them that, or you can come up with an enemy, and the enemy that they came up with was the West, and I think it was largely an imaginary enemy. And this was a tragedy that Russia made this decision. And that young diplomat was George Kennan, and that article was his famous ''X Article'' in Foreign Affairs in 1947, and I think it has a lot to tell us about China.


To add to this problem of the regime type and the need that this regime has, if it is not going to give its people freedom, then it has to justify a kind of garrison mentality, a stress on military values and obedience and so forth, something that was never true in the Soviet Union; namely, that is China is growing wealthy. That is not to say that ordinary people are seeing a great improvement in their lives. My travels indicate that this economic miracle is genuine up to a certain extent. But a great deal of money is available for military supplies.

You have a dictatorship with potentially dangerous foreign policy goals wedded to a functioning economy, which is going to be able to pay for the things that they need, and this is worrying.

Applying containment assumptions to China is not simply a matter of political convenience. China in the 1970s looked a lot like the post-World War II USSR: a sclerotic, paranoid, and repressive socialist cripple-state.

However, today’s China viewed through the containment lens looks all wrong.

If the Soviet Union had developed the way China has, forty years after Krushchev announced he would bury us we’d be buying our TVs from Minsk, our underwear from Pinsk, shipping our jobs to the Ukraine, and selling a large part of our government debt to Moscow.

To a significant extent, Communist China’s current leadership has staked its claim to legitimacy on providing peace and prosperity to its people and an increase in its prestige, influence, and legitimacy abroad, not as an embattled beacon of socialism. We can’t continue to pretend that our foreign policy is shaped in reaction to the PRC’s existential need for a clash of civilizations or a cage match between Communism and capitalism to sustain its rule.

We also can’t get away with announcing a compulsion to forcibly democratize the world, plant a Godzilla-sized military footprint in East and Central Asia and then ask querulously, as Donald Rumsfeld does, why do the Chinese feel they need an army?

The containment doctrine has become a politically useful but strategically dangerous crutch for the X Men and Women of our foreign policy establishment.

We need a different paradigm, with greater explanatory value—one that accommodates the existence of a repressive, unstable, but economically vibrant single-party state seeking to expand its regional opportunities through the development of its economic and military power; and a militarily and economically dominant democracy that opts out of the international system when it believes it can serve the national interest through the selective destabilization of undesirable regimes.

Wonder what letter of the alphabet we’ll use to describe the new China doctrine?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


“Gao Ta Yin Feng”

The high tower attracts the wind. Or, as another Chinese proverb states, more bluntly, the nail that sticks up gets pounded flat.

The left-wing blogosphere, especially that portion of it centered on Markos Moulitsas’s Dailykos community blog has had a brief opportunity to bask in its sense of importance as a leader in “netroots” Democratic Party activism.

Crashing the Gates, a handbook on reinvigorating the Democratic Party co-authored by Moulitsas, has garnered respectful mainstream reviews and impressive sales. The Kos community recently concluded a successful “Yearlykos” conference in Las Vegas covered by the mainstream media, and has received recognition of its role as a nexus of support for Ned Lamont’s burgeoning challenge to Connecticut Senator (and Friend of Bush) Joe Lieberman in the upcoming Democratic primary. Beyond that, there is a general feeling that the ever more evident failings of the Bush administration—and the possibility that the Republicans may stumble badly in the 2006 elections—dictate that its earliest, most consistent, and vociferous critics deserve a hearing.

But attention has also brought scrutiny--and attack.

Mainstream punditry dipped its toe in the left blogosphere and sniffed that on-line discourse was woefully lacking in common courtesy and devoid of ideas beyond anti-Bush vitriol. The New Republic, a liberal stronghold that has been struggling with the incubus of its publisher’s wholehearted support of Joe Lieberman, ran with a dubious expose alleging that Moulitas was orchestrating the blogosphere’s policy positions through a combination of intimidation, secret instructions, and monetary incentives.

The most embarrassing development, however, has probably been the revelation—perhaps unearthed through opposition research by certain factions in the Democratic Party that have been treated harshly on the Dailykos website-- that Moulitsas’ co-author for Crashing the Gates, Jerome Armstrong, was sanctioned by the SEC in 2003 for activities as a paid-for stock tout in 2000.

When I read the SEC
complaint relating to the case—which has been thoughtfully plastered all over the Internet by the right-wing blogosphere—I saw it pertained to China-related entities in situations I recognized and understood. Armstrong was allegedly involved in efforts to make a killing on the Over the Counter (OTC) stock of BluePoint, a company linked to an enterprise in China developing Linux-based applications.

In the golden days of the Clinton-Gore Internet bubble economy, many Chinese companies were attracted to the idea of going public in the United States. The irrational exuberance of our financial markets created the perception that large amounts of capital and insanely high valuations could be won by companies that packaged themselves the right way.

Big Chinese companies could go the blue-chip route by preparing an initial public offering on a major stock exchange with the assistance of the big investment banks.

Smaller companies didn’t have that option. So they were sometimes seduced by promoters who convinced them that the onerous, time-consuming, and expensive process of a public listing could be short-circuited through the purchase of a defunct company or “shell” whose corporate status had nevertheless been maintained and whose stock—though currently worthless “penny stocks” listed on “pink sheets”—could still be traded on some stock exchanges. Once the company’s high-concept, high tech, China-linked “story” had been skillfully presented to investors and its rosy prospects demonstrated to a market hungry for stocks with growth potential, so the pitch went, a successful stock offering would inject new capital—and investors—into the company.

Often the Chinese entities involved held the assets of valid, profitable companies in their own land, which made plausible the promise that they could eventually transcend their tawdry origins on the pink sheets and gain respect in the West as legitimate, profitable enterprises with widely owned and highly valued stock.

It’s not clear how often—if ever—the promise was fulfilled. In Armstrong’s case, it appears that the grand plan was short-circuited into a stock trading scheme in which a group of U.S.-based insiders controlled virtually all the unrestricted stock and engaged in self-dealing and promotion designed to ramp up the price and make a quick killing before the inevitable crash.

If I’m reading the SEC complaint correctly, it isn’t claimed that Armstrong knew about the rot inside the company he was touting. A mere $20,000 payday (Armstrong’s alleged profits) wouldn’t seem to place him in the inner circle. So it can be argued that at the most the SEC alleged he was simply pumping for pay without knowing that stock was bogus. And maybe the SEC went out of its way to hammer him so he’d help make a case against the rest of the promoters.

Nevertheless, it’s not a pretty picture, with elements of greed and venality that are perhaps acceptable skills for a political consultant but ill-befit the image of a dedicated democracy activist.

So it’s understandable that the left blogosphere is conflicted by the revelation that one of its higher-profile members was implicated in a sleazy penny stock scheme. It stings especially since the blogosphere—both left and right—is eager to be recognized as a source of blue-chip opinions, information, and advocacy, occupying a legitimate place in America’s political discourse—and not just a penny stock charade kept afloat by semi-employed, motormouthed losers.

In the interests of disclosure, I don’t know Jerome Armstrong or the company he touted.

But I was employed for a time (for cash, not stock) by a Chinese company that attempted to achieve a stock offering in the United States through the penny stock route.

Thankfully, the deal never went anywhere because of a toxic combination of greed, incompetence, and mistrust, and by the collapse of the stock bubble that was the necessary precondition for trying to move a corporation off the pink sheets and into respectable company.

I bet Jerome Richardson wishes he could have been so lucky.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Denise Woo, the J.J. Smith Factor, and the Spirit of '99

This has certainly been the week for chickens coming home to roost in FBI mismanagement of China-related counterintelligence operations.

Wen Ho Lee settled his invasion of privacy case against the US government and five media organizations relating to the botched espionage prosecution (for an in-depth backgrounder, please see the previous post, One Bad Espionage Case).

Today’s LA Times announced that Denise Woo had accepted a plea bargain in her case.

Ms. Woo was an FBI agent indicted for “allegedly tipping off a family friend that he was suspected of spying for the Chinese” in 1999. If the government proved its case, she could have gotten 15 years; instead she got one year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.

The LA Times’ account by Tanya Caldwell, (Ex-FBI Agent Enters Plea in Espionage Case, LA Times print edition, June 8, 2006) is relatively murky as to why the government was unable to throw the book at an FBI agent who allegedly not only tipped off her friend but revealed the identity of a confidential informant.

The case was apparently garbage and the target wasn’t a spy. No big shock there—and nothing exculpatory that would seem to justify Ms. Woo’s escape (albeit after a nightmarish 7 years) from the clutches of the law.

Fortunately, The American Lawyer weighed in on June 1 with a colossal 7600 word stemwinder The Deception of Denise Woo, written by Alison Frankel, who obtained the unstinting assistance of Woo’s lawyers at O’Melveny and Myers.

They even obligingly identified the innocent target of the investigation, previously known only as “JW”, as Jeffrey Wang, an engineer at Raytheon who lost his job as a result of the allegations. Mr. Wang has perhaps decided that anonymity is no longer necessary since he is apparently preparing his own lawsuit against the government.

The takeaway is this:

Woo was an exemplary FBI agent working on white-collar crime and Internet predators against children.

She happened to be a good friend of a woman married to Jeffrey Wang, an ethnic-Chinese engineer who fell under suspicion of espionage during the notorious reign of FBI China counter-intelligence guru J.J. Smith, (who was forced to resign after it was revealed he had concealed an affair with his key counter-intelligence asset—Katrina Leung—who turned out to be a double agent who was stealing documents from his briefcase).

Although Woo was not trained in counter-intelligence, she was put on the case in 1999 as a covert operative, instructed to present herself to Wang as a sympathetic family friend who just happened to work in the FBI, even as she collected evidence against him.

To quote Frankel’s article:

Wang was a member of Woo's extended family network, the husband of a woman she grew up with and the son-in-law of a couple whose close friendship with Woo's mother dates back more than 40 years. Woo was dragged into the Wang investigation, despite voicing misgivings, by superiors at the FBI who were eager to exploit her friendship with their suspect. She was compelled to deceive her family and friends for months, living like an undercover agent in her own life, though without benefit of the training and supervision the FBI is supposed to provide to undercover agents.

She played the role for months, but finding no evidence of his guilt and determining that the investigation was unfounded, an opinion that she insistently brought to the attention of her superiors, who disregarded her.

Though her lawyers are coy on this matter, it appears that Ms. Woo finally blabbed to Mr. Wang that he was being wiretapped and also revealed (in a taped conversation) the name or clues to the identity of the tainted informant.

Then the FBI and Justice Department attempted to throw the book at her and, to paraphrase a classic Chinese metaphor, only succeeded in dropping it on their own feet.

The defense strategy was clearly telegraphed in Frankel’s article:

First, that Ms. Woo was not properly trained for the greasy and equivocal role of a counterintelligence operative, particularly one who was explicitly recruited to perform the repellent task of trying to build a case against a family friend she believed to be innocent.

One has to believe she didn’t enjoy the scene when Wang reached out to her to stand by him and his family while the FBI tossed their house:

At some point that day Wang told Gil Cordova, the FBI agent in charge of his case, that he had a friend who was an FBI agent. Cordova said Wang could call her, not telling Wang, of course, that Woo had actually been part of the investigation team for months. Denise Woo arrived at the Wangs' house that night during the search, and sat with Jeff and Diane Wang in their living room. Wang, who was relieved she was there, started talking to Woo about the investigation. "From their perspective," says Wang's lawyer, Rawitz, "they had a friend who was going to work out this situation." Adds Brian Sun: "They had no idea that she knew about the case beforehand."

Second, her admissions to Wang could be defended as trust-building revelations concerning facts Wang already knew or suspected.

Third, Woo found evidence of an unrevealed nature exonerating Wang which the FBI refused to accept, forcing her to continue in an effort she found highly stressful, unnecessary, and morally and legally repugnant.

Fourth, the guy was innocent for Pete’s sake. No harm no foul!

Fifth, and perhaps most crucially, Woo could claim botched supervision by J.J. Smith, whose record of fornication with Chinese double agents, rule-bending, and general over the cliff disastrous mismanagement of the FBI’s China counterintelligence efforts in LA could be contrasted most unfavorably with Woo’s diligence, ethics, and overall punctillio.

The article provides a taste of what might have transpired in the courtroom if the case had gone to trial:

Two days after the search, Wang went to see Sarah Woo, Denise's mother and his financial adviser. She was stunned at the FBI's accusations. …Wang asked Sarah Woo… to call the FBI on his behalf. He handed her the business card J.J. Smith had given him the night before. Then Sarah Woo called Smith. It was a surpassingly bizarre moment: The unsuspecting mother of an FBI agent who'd spent several months assisting the investigation of her mother's client was on the phone with the agent supervising the investigation her daughter was secretly a part of. "Jeff would like for me to come in and meet with you to clear this up," Sarah Woo recalls telling Smith. Smith, she says, dismissed her, rudely. "He said, 'I know all about the Chinese. I know he's a spy.' "

The J.J. Smith factor has already sunk one government case—the biggee, the Katrina Leung investigation. In the generous plea bargain the Feds gave Smith (one count of lying, retirement, no jail time), they specified that he could not speak to Leung or her attorneys, hopelessly compromising her defense and resulting in most of the serious charges being thrown out.

And it doesn’t seem that the government’s throw it at the wall and hope it sticks approach to counter-espionage prosecutions has changed.

In fact, it appears to be built into the system.

Frankel provides a good description of the quasi-legal counterintelligence strategies pursued by the FBI:

Many of the people China tried to win over were Chinese Americans, so that's where the FBI concentrated its counterespionage efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. Counterintelligence agents developed informants among Chinese Americans and Chinese citizens living in the U.S., relying on them to supply information on people with contacts, either professional or personal, in China. The goal was to identify and neutralize Chinese agents, not necessarily to prosecute them; more often, according to Moore, suspects would find their security clearance quietly revoked or FBI agents dogging their travels. Chinese counterintelligence attracted agents who preferred to work in the shadows.

The question is, how far can the government go into the grey area of using informants, entrapment, and creative employment of the legal process to interdict genuine espionage before it starts harassing and intimidating innocent Chinese in the United States who have limited ability to protect their reputations and livelihoods from sloppy government hit jobs?

Answer: I don’t think the government worries too much about the question.

On the same page of the LA Times that announced Woo’s plea on June 8, 2006 is an article by H.G. Reza entitled “Pair Are Indicted in Chinese Spy Case”.

It refers to the case of the Mak family, who were nailed trying to take some computer disks relating to submarine propulsion systems to China.

Open and shut case? Maybe not.

To quote from the article, “[Espionage] charges were dropped when prosecutors revealed that most of the information they were accused of stealing was publicly available.”

The Maks are not being tried as spies. They are now being tried as “unregistered agents of the Chinese government.”

I would suspect that “the Spirit of ‘99”—the year of Cox Report and the inception of the Wen Ho Lee and Denise Woo cases—is still alive and well at the FBI.

One Bad Espionage Case

Looking back at the Wen Ho Lee case, it clearly demonstrates the need for the Patriot Act and warrantless NSA spying on American citizens—at least for our national security apparatus.

Because the exercise of unlimited, unaccountable police powers is the final refuge of overzealous and incompetent investigators.

A brief overview of the Wen Ho Lee case (I am indebted an excellent detailed discussion of the case and the technical and security issues involved in Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman’s A Convenient Spy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001, hereinafter ACS) provides some background:

Wen Ho Lee worked on fluid dynamics simulations as a computer programmer at Los Alamos. A technical mediocrity perpetually on the RIF (reduction in force) bubble, he scouted around for consulting work overseas and sought to boost his profile by inserting himself into the ongoing exchanges between Chinese and US weapons scientists during the Reagan and Clinton years.

He was also a dingbat who downloaded sensitive files in his specialty, first to an unsecure network and then to tapes, perhaps as personal trophies or as a resource for a second career. When his misdeeds came to light, he panicked, lied, and destroyed evidence in an effort to cover his tracks.

Wen Ho Lee should have been terminated for his security violations and he probably should have suffered criminal penalties for obstruction of justice.

Instead, he ran afoul of Department of Intelligence counterintelligence chief Notra Trulock, whose national security jihad paradoxically provided Lee with redemptive incarceration, book and movie deals, and a big settlement from the government and news organizations for the invasion of his privacy.

Trulock was determined to unearth “one good espionage case” that would lead to an overhaul of lax security procedures, indifferent management, and excessive accommodation of Chinese visitors that he believed plagued America’s nuclear weapons facilities under the Clinton administration.

Unfortunately, he became obsessed with one bad espionage case, a mistaken attempt to pin China’s acquisition of information about America’s W88 warhead on Wen Hou Lee.

In 1992 China detonated a nuclear device that resembled the W88 in yield and—according to an espionage report—in general shape. In 1995, a defector delivered documents that indicated that China had some classified information on the W88 and other warheads.

The W88 is a tricky, neat little package, very difficult to make and represents the pinnacle of US weapons design and manufacturing. Notra Trulock seized upon the fragmentary intelligence to assert that Chinese espionage had delivered a devastating blow to American nuclear superiority and security.

When Los Alamos experts refused to endorse a conclusion that the Chinese device was a W88 duplicate achieved by theft of US nuclear secrets, Trulock suppressed their report (it was claimed he said he’d wipe his ass with the report, which he denied, but he did hide it in his safe) and pulled the FBI in on a spy hunt centered on Wen Hou Lee and his wife.

A fitful FBI investigation found sufficient grounds to question Lee’s frankness and judgment, but nothing incriminating on the espionage front.

Frustrated, Trulock briefed fanatically—more than sixty times by his count--to a broad range of bureaucrats including Sandy Berger, Louis Freeh, Janet Reno, and William Cohen on the alleged theft of W88 secrets, alleging the existence of a Chinese mole.

In 1998, he finally found a receptive audience in the “House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military Commerical Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, a.k.a. the Cox Committee.

The committee had originally been convened for the noble but relatively modest purpose of embarrassing the Clinton administration and top management of Loral and Hughes (who happened to supply campaign contributions and government appointees to the Clinton administration) for their excessive cooperation with China to resolve technical problems with China’s launch vehicles that were blowing up with American satellites inside.

Trulock electrified the commission.

Cox himself said, “I saw the look on their faces, I listened to the expression of emotion when we heard these things, and our hearts were in our mouths”. [ACS, p.169]

One member said:

“The Cox Committee had been cranked up expecting to find some significant lapse of security in the satellite launches…Instead we went into the fall with a ho-hum set of findings that weren’t going to alarm anybody. And then Notra Trulock comes along with a story of nuclear espionage.” [ACS, p.170]

The denouement was the Cox Report (abridged version, ed. Kenneth Degraffenreid, Regnery Publishing Co. Washington D.C., 1999 hereinafter CR).

The Overview of the unclassified version begins:

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has stolen classified design information on the United States’ most advanced thermonuclear weapons…The stolen U.S. nuclear secrets give the PRC design information on thermonuclear weapons on a par with our own. [CR, p.1]

It gave full weight to the worst-case scenario that stolen US secrets had saved the Chinese “years of effort and resources” in developing the “next generation intercontinental ballistic missiles” that would, among other things, “enable PRC ballistic missile submarines to strike the U.S. from within PRC waters”.

Caspar Weinberger, ironically basking in a presidential pardon for his own foreign policy malfeasance, later wrote in the foreword of the Regnery edition of the Cox Report to connect the dots for the partisan-minded:

“…when one looks at the evidence…it appears that the main Clinton-Gore foreign policy is appeasement…The great mystery when we look at the actions of the Clinton Gore administration is trying to explain why? Why would the administration so cavalierly endanger American security? Is it really a matter so simple, so sordid, so base as campaign contributions?…the Clinton-Gore administration stands condemned of some of the worst and most damaging national security decisions of this century.” [CR foreword]

However, history has not treated the Cox Report particularly kindly.

“They cherry picked, and they disregarded the larger body of analysis,” said one former CIA analyst. “It seemed fairly clear from both the process and the outcome that they went in with a set of conclusions already in hand and the cherry picking was to support that. The predetermined finding was: The Clinton administration is full of incompetents at best and willfully negligent on national security at worst, and all these things were sort of purchased with campaign contributions.” [ACS, p. 222]

Wen Ho Lee appeared incognito in Chapter 2 of the report, identified as a “suspect” in the theft of W88 design information identified in spring 1995 who “At the date of the Select Committee’s January 3, 1999 classified Final Report…continues to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and continues to have access to classified information.” [CR, p. 120]

Lee did not remain anonymous—or employed--for long.

When the Clinton administration tried to suppress the report by abuse of the classification process, Trulock pulled an end-around and found another receptive audience: James Risen at the New York Times.

Risen’s scoop packaged Trulock’s alarmist assumptions—that the Chinese had stolen W88 secrets, there was a suspect at Los Alamos who stood out like “a sore thumb”, and that the Clinton administration was stalling the investigation—as fact and stampeded the Clinton administration into first leaking Wen Ho Lee’s name to the press and then firing him.

Then government investigators stumbled across evidence of Lee’s massive, illicit downloads of computer code—the first real evidence of malfeasance.

The only problem was that by that time the central pillar of any espionage case against Lee—the walk-in spy data that supposedly linked Los Alamos and by implication Lee to China’s “W88” knock-off—then crumbled.

A team reviewed the data and determined that the Chinese defector’s documents only covered the exterior dimensions of the W88 nuclear package—which was information provided to contractors working on the physical interface between the package and the nosecone. It was data Lee had no access to.

Nevertheless, the government brought a 59-count indictment against Lee, passed the word that he had committed espionage as damaging as the Rosenberg and Aldrich Ames, and maneuvered to deny him bail and incarcerate him in shackles in solitary confinement so he could neither communicate with nor be rescued by his presumed co-conspirators, hoping the onerous conditions would press him to confess.

When the case came to trial, government witnesses testified that a hostile power could reverse-engineer not only the W88 but virtually the entire US nuclear arsenal by examining Lee’s tape.

But this crucial testimony was fatally undermined by incensed experts from Los Alamos testifying for the defense, who declared that the tapes would be useless to the bomb in the basement gang and at best of only reference interest to the more sophisticated nuclear powers like China, which already have the infrastructure, man-centuries of experience, and modeling software of their own to apply to nuclear weapons design.

With no proof of espionage, no plausible consensus as to the importance of Lee’s downloads, and various government miscues, the case fell apart.

The presiding judge, James A. Parker pushed the two sides to a plea bargain of guilty on one of the 59 counts and released Lee for time already served. When he dismissed the case, Parker said:

“It is only the top decision makers in the Executive Branch, especially in the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy…who have caused embarrassment by the way this case began and was handled. They did not embarrass me alone. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.” [ACS, p. 330]

The government didn’t even recover the tapes. Their deal with Lee was only that he would provide an affidavit and submit to further questioning as to how he disposed of the tapes.

Lee claimed he had tossed them in a dumpster at the lab. Despite an exhaustive search of the landfill, the tapes were never found.

The source of the W88 security breach was never discovered. Thousands of contractors and individuals had access to the information; a Lockheed document seemed to match the data most closely.

An amusing sidelight in Tobin and Hoffman’s book is the Chinese indignation at the American presumption that their advances in weapons design could only be achieved by theft of US nuclear secrets.

A Chinese scientist, Hu Side, had designed the device whose detonation in 1992 triggered the whole W88 crisis. He berated a visiting Los Alamos administrator:

“You have overestimated the scientific and technical capability of the U.S. and seriously underestimated that of China…You have insulted us…We never learned anything from you…We did not need you!”[ACS, p. 226]

One might think Dr. Hu was laying it on a bit thick, since extensive and intensive Chinese intelligence gathering and espionage about the US nuclear weapons program is an acknowledged fact. But the American visitor, a scientist and intelligence officer who had first hand knowledge of the Chinese nuclear program, agreed:

“I think they did it on their own…I don’t think it was espionage.”[ACS, p. 226]

The FBI had floundered with the case for four years. Laughably, they dithered interminably over whether they could search Lee’s computer without his knowledge, even though they could have done so (he had signed a release prepared by his division many years before, but the FBI never asked about it).

They tried to get a warrant from the FISA (Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act) court on national security grounds—ordinarily not an overwhelmingly difficult task.

Writing before the current brouhaha over the Bush administration’s refusal to go through the FISA court and instead engage in warrantless surveillance, Stober and Hoffman wrote:

“The FBI loves FISAs,” said a congressional aide who has followed the bureau. And the FISC [Federal Intelligence Surveillance court] loves to give them, approving an average of roughly 800 a year—or more than two a day including weekends—in the 1990s. [ASC p. 151]

But the case against Lee—prior to the Cox Report cum Notra Turlock firestorm in the New York Times--was so weak that the application didn’t even pass Justice Department internal review.

A government investigation of the debacle also pointed out the gross errors committed by an investigation that was premised on ethnic profiling.

Ethnic factors were not employed to expand the list of possible suspects; instead, the process was used to exclude entire classes of potential spies and eventually narrow the list down to Wen Ho Lee.

In the words of the report:

“The AI [Administrative Inquiry] should have been a sieve resulting in the identification of a number of suspects. Instead, it ended up as a funnel from which only Wen Ho and Sylvia Lee emerged.” [ACS, p. 126]

It remains to see if the Wen Ho Lee case, with its ideas of proportion, due process, and fair play, is remembered as a quaint artifact of 20th century American jurisprudence.

Post 9/11 public opinion has followed government practice and veered toward approval of racial profiling as a “better safe than sorry” national security tool.

Today Wen Ho Lee could be held incommunicado as an enemy combatant and denied the legal recourse and invaluable publicity and sympathy that his plight gained him.

The psychological pressure of indefinite incarceration could be used to break him and provide a false confession enabling the government to make a deeply flawed case.

Apparently, today there would be no FISA gatekeeper, either at the court or the Justice Department, to review a dodgy brief and perhaps put a misguided investigation on hold.

And of course, redress in the form of a lawsuit punishing the government and press for the botched investigation and prosecution by leak would be denied.

Something to remember the next time a China scare comes around.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

So Long Wen Ho Lee

The final disposition of the Wen Ho Lee case--a $1.65 million dollar settlement of the suit for invasion of his privacy--draws a curtain on one of the most contemptible episodes in American politics.

In the 1990s the American conservative movement faced two dilemmas.

The first was the so-called enemy deficit, occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

The second was the election of a charismatic Democrat, Bill Clinton as President.

In an attempt to create an exploitable advantage on national security and hobble the Clinton presidency, the right wing cobbled together a dishonest narrative that China was a dire threat and that the Clinton administration was knowingly selling our country out to the Chinese.

The tainted fruit of this initiative was the infamous Cox Commission report, the brouhaha about Clinton’s fundraising from Asian sources, a cynical effort to stampede public and elite opinion through the dishonest propagation of worst-case scenarios concerning China and the Clintons…and the Wen Ho Lee case.

Wen Ho Lee became the poster child for right wing allegations of lax, panda-appeasing mismanagement-- tantamount to treason--of our national defense by the Clinton administration .

To its eternal discredit, the Clinton administration tried to create some political space for itself by Sista Souljah-ing Wen Ho Lee. It twin-tracked a politicized, intimidating FBI investigation with a whispering campaign of leaks and innuendo in the press against Wen Ho Lee in an effort to appear “tough on China”.

But then the circus left town.

President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky provided the anti-Clinton forces with a salacious narrative of serial sexual misconduct and cover-up that the press and public found much more compelling than murky allegations of treasonous contacts with the PRC.

Then the enemy deficit was spectacularly remedied by 9/11 and the appearance of a new, unattractive, and oil-rich Middle Eastern boogeyman that terrified the American people and re-invigorated and enriched the national security-political-industrial complex a hundred times more than remote, unthreatening China ever could.

The Wen Ho Lee case was ignored and abandoned as an early, failed experiment in the politics of personal destruction and orchestrated national security hysteria.

Wen Ho Lee seems to have merged from the wreckage with his equanimity intact and his life’s trajectory redirected onto perhaps a not unfavorable course.

Notra Trulock, the would-be Jean Valjean of the case, a professional paranoid and intemperate Clinton-hater, seems a pathetic figure, his career and reputation shredded by the right wingers who cynically encouraged and abetted him.

Ironically, the core issues of actual Chinese espionage in the United States, the problems of morale, management, and security in our weapons labs, and even the question of whether Wen Ho Lee is a saint, sinner, or simply just an ordinary, equivocating techno-careerist, have never been honestly or usefully addressed.

All that’s left is the Wen Ho Lee settlement, a sordid monument to a forgotten campaign of dishonesty and slander—and the last milestone on a mean little dead end street, just off the main highway of dishonor that leads to our national shame in Iraq.

EastSouthWestNorth has a good collection of articles providing the background of the case.

Friday, June 02, 2006


That’s Hu-jiao Qi-ai Bo-shi or, in English translation, “Paging Dr. Strangelove”.

The recent Pentagon report on China’s military modernization spent several paragraphs harrumphing about purported new ambiguity in China’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons, given the remarks of one Chinese general Zhu Chenghu that a non-nuclear clash in the Taiwan straits might lead to a Chinese nuclear response.

His remarks had been quickly disavowed by the Chinese government as a piece of over-the-top saber rattling.

Yesterday, the authoritative arms control website Arms Control Wonk went the
extra mile to pursue this issue and debunk a misleading and inflammatory representation in the Pentagon report of a statement by a Chinese academic on China’s nuclear first use policy, thereby eliciting our profound admiration and earning Arms Control Wonk a spot on the blogroll.

In contrast, there’s no real ambiguity about America's doctrine on nuclear first use.

We’re all for it.

U.S. nuclear doctrine has moved well beyond the simple and straightforward Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. Our thermonuclear arsenal includes pocket-sized “dialable yield” nukes designed to fit on cruise missiles, and not just the megaton monsters the US, China, and Russia are accustomed to putting on top of their ICBMs and in their strategic bombers.

First use of tactical nuclear weapons, ostensibly to counter the decisive conventional superiority the Soviet Union would wield blitzing its massive tank forces across Germany in a confrontation with NATO, was never renounced by the United States.

Now that the shoe is on the other foot in Eastern Europe and American forces are safe from the specter of swift and catastrophic defeat in the heart of free Europe, the nuclear doctrine has been recast.

America’s nuclear superiority is too powerful and seductive an advantage to abandon merely on the grounds that there are no foreseeable missions that could not be plausibly accomplished with conventional forces alone.

Therefore, nuclear and conventional weapons are integrated into our new, offensive and “pre-emptive” strategy.

The new thinking is enshrined in Joint Publication 3-12 “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations”.

Thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, who writes Arms Control Wonk, this doctrine is pretty much a matter of public record.

Using that sophisticated open source intelligence tool, Google, Dr. Lewis accessed a public server at the Pentagon last year and downloaded draft copies of Joint Publication 3-12, which subsequently propagated all over the Internet.

Joint Publication 3-12 is meant to direct military commanders in the “joint” employment and integration of conventional and nuclear weapons in those limited conflicts for which the standard 21st century total war manual—the Book of Revelations—offers little useful guidance.

In place of the old strategic triad of pounding the enemy with bombers and missiles with the promise that the third leg—nuclear submarines—would survive any exchange, there is a new triad.

It consists of the old gang of offensive nuclear weapons; new defenses (think Star Wars); and something called “Infrastructure”, which looks like it was put in there by the suits in Secretary Rumsfeld’s office just to make sure President Bush didn’t feel shortchanged that he only got a Diad while Bill Clinton had a Triad.

More significantly, the nuclear doctrine includes as its mission (beyond deterrence and elimination of WMD threats) “decisively defeating the enemy” in conventional conflicts.

The conclusion to the Executive Summary states:

US nuclear forces deter potential adversary use of WMD and dissuade against a potential adversary’s development of an overwhelming conventional threat.

As a reading of the document makes clear, the overwhelming conventional threats under consideration are not strategic threats that could entail total and final US defeat.

The threats that Joint Publication 3-12 believe might merit a nuclear response are tactical "theater" threats, ones which might lead to American defeat or retreat in a local encounter, not the loss of the whole war.

For military planners, the holy grail has been to achieve sanction for use of lower-yield nukes in conventional battle situations.

They’ve argued that a tactical nuclear weapon is just another great big bomb and the enemy is not going to escalate to a strategic nuclear response just because his soldiers have been nuked instead of shot, shelled, howitzered, chain-gunned, napalmed, willy-peted, claymored, MOABed, had their innards vacuumed out their nose and shot across the battlefield by a fuel-air bomb or whatever.

Of course, in what I think will be remembered as the signature phrase of Joint Publication 3-12, "this perception cannot be guaranteed".

However, we may get the opportunity to test this attractive theory.

Battlefield commanders can now take the initiative to request a nuclear strike if they think conditions warrant, including, quoting from 3-12, situations such as:

(e) For rapid and favorable war termination on US terms.

(f) To ensure success of US and multinational operations.

In other words, use of nuclear weapons can be a matter of tactical convenience, not existential need.

The doctrine states (emphasis in original):

…like any military action, the decision to use nuclear weapons is driven by the political objective sought. This choice involves many political considerations, all of which impact nuclear weapon use, the types and number of weapons used, and method of employment.

Fortunately, the Pentagon assures us there will be no messy legal or moral questions involved in choosing where or when to drop the Bomb, whether it’s to save the lives of US troops, “shock and awe” the enemy civilian population, or just to give the president the excuse to fly to an aircraft carrier and declare “Mission Accomplished” (once again, emphasis in original):

International reaction toward the country or nonstate entity that first employs weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is an important political consideration. ..Nevertheless, while the belligerent that initiates nuclear warfare may find itself the target of world condemnation, no customary or conventional international law prohibits nations from employing nuclear weapons in armed conflict.

Whew! I feel that anxiety about first use of nuclear weapons lifting already. Thanks, Joint Publication 3-12!

I’m sure everybody can think of at least one limited-war or "theater" nuclear scenario under this doctrine involving China right away.

It is difficult to think of an ally as unnecessary, equivocal, war-averse, and unfit to serve as a pretext for World War III as Taiwan.

I don't think Armageddon's on the agenda for the Taiwan Straits--but limited war certainly is.

And if it comes to that, we want our nukes.

If we’re going to go to war with China in a limited way over Taiwan, it’s understandable that we would still want to bring our overwhelming nuclear power to bear and avoid repeating those irritating Asian stalemates and quagmires that seem to beset our military planners whenever politics, strategy, or moral qualms place the nuclear option out of reach.

Lowering the bar significantly to enable nuclear first use against our pesky regional competitor in a limited war may very well be necessary pre-condition for a confrontation with China over Taiwan.

However, it is unlikely to serve even as a military panacea.

Incinerating China’s Taiwan strike force with a nuclear strike, while avoiding the costs, risks, and uncertainties of a protracted conventional war, would leave us a bigger problem: a pissed-off China, with an infuriated population rallying around an intact anti-American leadership.

Which might tempt the US up the ante and consider the second nuclear scenario: the threat of a “decapitating strike” against the Chinese leadership sequestered in hardened bunkers near or in heavily-populated civilian areas, in order to get the Chinese Communists to cry uncle, sue for terms, and acquiesce to a catastrophic defeat that would presumably spell the end of their now implacably anti-American regime.

But this doesn’t look very plausible.

Despite America’s well-advertised infatuation with the surgical strike and bunker-busting nuke, and the seductive image of an implacable warhead burrowing deeply and accurately into Hu Jintao’s secret location to destroy evil at its source while the liberated peoples of Beijing fill the streets in ecstatic partying throngs overhead, we’d be looking at something a lot messier and nastier.

Something like a nuclear warhead thudding no more than 50 feet in the ground, followed by an ugly, irradiating blast rendering the center of China’s ancient capital largely uninhabitable while destroying thousands of people and cultural artifacts, but with the leadership probably surviving in some other bunker we didn’t know about.

The obvious objective of the joint nuclear operations doctrine is to convince the Chinese both of its plausibility and the fact that any US attack would be overwhelming and fatal to the regime.

However, it looks to me that the dream of an accurate, precise, and infinitely calibrated nuclear response is a dangerous mirage.

Once the instrument of total war is used in a limited conflict and atomic warheads become just another item on the tactical menu, survivability is an option, and the effectiveness of nuclear attack becomes hostage to political factors both on the attacker’s and the enemy’s sides.

So I wonder if the message that the Chinese will extract from Joint Publication 3-12 is the one that America’s military planners expect.

I think their military planners will look at the new strategy and decide that an invasion of Taiwan resisted by the United States with a tactical nuclear response would not be fatal to the Chinese Communist regime.

It would be politically survivable for the Chinese leadership—but perhaps politically fatal for America’s leadership.

China would unite behind its regime.

On the other hand, if domestic and international opinion decided that the US had executed the nuclear option with criminal recklessness and incompetence—that the nuclear strike had not cleanly and efficiently ended the conflict, and instead had exacerbated and extended it in the most dire and unfamiliar fashion, US political leadership might not survive.

Because nuclear war is the ultimate and most dangerous terra incognita, which we enter at our own--and the world’s--peril. Absent the vital vindication of a decisive, unambiguous triumph, it’s simply not worth the costs and risks.

3-12 acknowledges the danger, with a dismissive shrug:

Executing a nuclear option, or even a portion of an option, should send a clear signal of United States’ resolve. Hence, options must be selected very carefully and deliberately so that the attack can help ensure the adversary recognizes the “signal” and should therefore not assume the United States has escalated to general nuclear war, although that perception cannot be guaranteed.

Ah. “…that perception cannot be guaranteed”.

I can imagine a soldier hastily painting a message on the nosecone of a nuclear-armed cruise missile targeting the Zhong Nan Hai leadership compound, conveniently located just off Tian An Men Square:

“This is not escalation to a general nuclear war. Surrender now and gratefully acknowledge your new Caucasian overlords. The peoples of China and the world will recognize this as a new dawn of freedom, peace, and democracy… …although that perception cannot be guaranteed.”