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Book Reviews

Book cover: The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China's Penetration of the CIA

The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China's Penetration of the CIA

Reviewed by Richard Desjardins

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The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China's Penetration of the CIA
by Tod Hoffman
Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2008
309 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 978-1-58642-148-9

Reviewed by Richard Desjardins

For several years, US and Canadian intelligence agencies have reported aggressive Chinese intelligence activities taking place on the North American continent. According to these reports, China has focused heavily upon acquiring Western technology as part of its larger focus on economic development. If it is no longer surprising to hear about these efforts, we should remember that it was not always so. If China is fast becoming the new strategic adversary, the Soviet Union held that position for nearly fifty years.

When the story of Larry Chin was first reported in the press in the early-1980s, it shed light on a Chinese ‘import’ with which the public was not familiar: Chinese espionage in the West. It was only a decade earlier that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had been recognized by Canada (1970) and the United States as the legitimate government of China. In large part because of its conscious policy of turning inward, China was largely an unknown entity to the rest of the world. In fact, much knowledge about China was based upon sketchy reports from refugees.

Tod Hoffman has made an important contribution to a subject that remains shrouded in secrecy and rumours. If China has made significant progress in ‘opening a window’ on its military, the domain of intelligence remains largely closed. Mr. Hoffman is providing us with a limited but very much needed account of Chinese intelligence practices.

Earlier accounts of Chinese intelligence activities took the form of ‘spy stories.’ French journalists Roger Faligot and Rémi Kauffer provided such a narrative in their biography of Chinese spy chief Kang Sheng. Another biography of Kang Sheng appeared shortly thereafter, purportedly based upon privileged access to Chinese government documents, thus lending this account greater credibility. However, these books failed to extract a textbook version of Chinese intelligence practices. Those interested had to wait until 1994, when Nicholas Eftimiades, a former CIA analyst, published what remains the only manual providing a description of China’s intelligence structure, including a description of its various agencies and their functions.

Most recently, various US agencies have begun paying closer attention to Chinese intelligence operations in the United States. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an agency established to explore all aspects of US-China relations, has revealed, in a recent annual report, extensive Chinese interest in American technology. Chinese intelligence has apparently been at the forefront of this effort. Reports of theft of US military technology have generally been fewer, and far between. During the Clinton Administration, there was the infamous case involving a native Taiwanese, scientist Wen Ho Lee, who had been suspected of providing nuclear technology secrets with respect to US missiles to the PRC. Lee, a US citizen, worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory. There is no doubt that the Chinese would be interested in acquiring American military technology. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in the midst of a major transformation designed to bring it into the 21st Century.

Larry Chin’s story belongs to another era – that of the Cold War. Born in China in 1922, and educated in elite schools, Chin was not a natural supporter of the Chinese Communists. His interest appears to have had more nationalistic inclinations. He was drawn to assist the PRC as early as the Korean War (1950-1953), when he worked for the State Department and subsequently for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), an agency closely linked to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and involved in the translation of foreign press reports, which included radio broadcasts.

During his years of duplicity, Chin would have reported to his Chinese Communist masters on Chinese POWs during the Korean War who were interviewed by US military intelligence. At the FBIS, he was assigned to translate Chinese radio broadcasts, which, in turn, allowed the Chinese to determine areas of interest to US intelligence.

Tod Hoffman, a former intelligence officer of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), has written a compelling account of the Larry Chin spy case. Relying upon all the information currently available, including court records, media reports, and interviews of the principal participants, Hoffman can probably claim to have produced the definitive account of the Larry Chin case. While there remain some areas of mystery, those that do remain are unlikely to ever be resolved.

Writing a book on a topic such as this is always a challenge. Much secrecy surrounds the activities of the uncovered agent, and both sides are inclined to reveal as little as possible. In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Hoffman admits that parts of the story are “imagined.” For instance, what went through Chin’s mind as he was interviewed by the FBI could only be surmised. Hoffman based such descriptions on his years of experience in intelligence, and his interpretation was deemed plausible by other experts in the field who reviewed his manuscript. That said, this reviewer had no reservations with respect to generally accepting the author’s version of events.

That said, one area that appeared to be relatively less convincing concerns the motivations of Larry Chin, and to what extent his espionage benefited the PRC. One major contention of Larry Chin was that his actions contributed to the rapprochement between China and the United States during the early-1970s. Hoffman claims that Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, was involved in making Chin an active source for China. Unfortunately, he does not provide any evidence to support that claim. While Chin claimed at his trial that Zhou was receiving his reports, such a statement cannot be accepted at face value from someone who was, essentially, trying to ‘save his skin.’ Hoffman quotes Margaret MacMillan, who mentions in her book Nixon in China: the Week That Changed the World, that the Chinese had an agent in the CIA. However, MacMillan does not elaborate upon that statement, nor does she identify her source.

It is well-known that Nixon kept very few people ‘in the loop’ of his plans to open up to China. Was Chin involved in translating letters from English to Chinese drafted by Nixon and intended for Mao, as is suggested by Hoffman? We can only speculate. As far as is known, no one has ever been able to show that Chin was, indeed, involved in the Nixon Administration’s overture to China. This also raises another major concern about the Chin case. The FBI investigation failed to identify one single document purported to have been leaked by Chin to the Chinese. They had to rely upon Chin’s own admission that he provided his masters documents similar to the ones he was being showed by the FBI. One should also remember that the information received and translated by the FBIS was in the public domain. Their value resided in the fact that the Chinese could confirm what areas were of particular interest to the US government.

That being said, Hoffman’s account remains a commendable effort to understand the psychological warfare that can occur between agents of two major powers.

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Richard Desjardins is a Canadian federal civil servant. He holds a Master’s Degree in Chinese politics.