Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China

  • David Wise
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 277 pp.

A detailed look at some FBI operations designed to thwart Chinese espionage against the United States.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

David Wise is the dean of U.S. intelligence writers. Since the 1960s, when he famously roused the wrath of the CIA for The Invisible Government, he has poured out volume after volume on intelligence, covering everything from the Gary Powers U-2 incident in 1960 to the defection of Edward Lee Howard in the 1980s. But Tiger Trap is a letdown.

The title of the book raised doubts in this reviewer’s mind. No one I know who is versed in U.S. international or security matters refers to the United States as “America.” That name, by itself, properly refers to two continents, not to a single nation. Maybe a sales-conscious editor devised the title.

My concerns about the title grew as it became clear that the book doesn’t address anything like a “spy war.” It is a recounting of selected FBI counterintelligence actions against agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since the FBI runs no foreign spies, and the National Security Agency and the CIA, who do indeed spy on China, are mentioned only in passing, U.S. espionage against China is never broached at all.

What the book does give us is a minutely detailed history of a dozen FBI operations, most of them interrelated, all designed to thwart, disrupt or dismantle Chinese espionage against the United States. In the process, it portrays the FBI performance as less than stellar, although Wise’s wording suggests little criticism of the bureau.

The two most important operations were code-named PARLOR MAID and TIGER TRAP. The first dealt with Katrina Leung, a high-profile leader of the Chinese American community in Los Angeles who spied for the PRC’s Ministry of State Security — the Chinese equivalent of the CIA — for more than 15 years. Her success derived in part from her affairs with two FBI agents, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, both of whom believed she was working for the FBI.

The second operation, TIGER TRAP, targeted Gwo Bao Min, a U.S. citizen born in Taiwan who, as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory with a Q clearance, had access to every secret of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Several features linked the two operations, but the most important was that the FBI agents in charge of each was having an affair with Katrina Leung — simultaneously — each unaware of the other.

In the end, all miscreants were brought to justice, sort of. Three factors prevented harsh sentences. The first is a phenomenon known as “graymail,” a threat by defense lawyers to reveal classified information in court, a tactic that inclines the government to back off. The second is the vagueness of U.S. espionage law. The third is bureaucratic roadblocks — the FBI collects evidence, but the Department of Justice must approve an indictment, based on its estimate of the likelihood of conviction. The net result was that Leung was sentenced to probation and community service and fined. Min lost his job at Livermore but was never prosecuted.

Wise also chronicles two disastrous FBI campaigns against innocent players, Wen Ho Lee and Jeffrey V. Wang, who were, in the long term, acquitted, even though their careers were ruined. And he tells us of circumstantial evidence J. Edgar Hoover garnered that Richard Nixon had slept with a bar hostess in Hong Kong, evidence later discredited. Finally, Wise devotes a single chapter to China’s cyber attacks against the United States. Because the rest of the book has concerned FBI counterintelligence, the cyber story feels tacked on.

Tiger Trap suffers from one of the earmarks of the intelligence trade: tedium. Wise omits nothing as he relates the thrusts and counterthrusts of the spies and their pursuers, most of which produced no result. The action slows to a halt when he describes a SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) or belabors the obvious — that the Chinese probably put together data about U.S. nuclear weapons over a long period of time. The writing is sometimes colorless and occasionally led this reader to stumble on sentences like “he was not easily fazed by the unexpected.”

Wise’s narration suggests that the FBI often blundered from shallow understanding of the Chinese culture and language, but Wise himself seems uneducated. For example, he (or his editor) sometimes hyphenates Chinese names at the end of lines, dividing a single Chinese syllable into two parts. He also shows no sense of the variance in the spelling of Chinese names, depending on the Romanization system (PinYin, Wade-Giles or Yale) used. He cites as different names Guo, Kuo and Gwo, apparently unaware that the three are different spellings for the same syllable in Chinese. Granted, the rendering of Chinese names in American English is notoriously inconsistent, but Wise would have served his readers better had he stuck to one spelling system. Things get even iffier when Wise works with names rendered in a dialect other than guo yu (“national language,” mistakenly referred to as “Mandarin”).

Wise notes that when it comes to intelligence, what the public sees is the tip of the iceberg. My sense is that what we see of Chinese and U.S. intelligence in Tiger Trap is even less.

Tom Glenn, a prize-winning writer, headed two intelligence operations targeting the People’s Republic of China.

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