Spying on America: It's a growth industry
In post-cold-war world, China isn't alone in espionage against US asnations seek economic, strategic advantages.
WASHINGTON — The politically sensitive China spy scandal illustrates how the world of intelligence gathering has shifted in the 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
No longer is it just the Russians who keep American intelligence agents looking behind every trench coat and laser-guided missile for signs of foreign espionage. Longtime friends too - France, India, Israel - pose increasing risks to American military and technology interests.
While Washington focuses on the alleged Chinese theft of US weapons technology, experts say intelligence-gathering in the post-cold-war era is now far more sophisticated and involves a multitude of nations and motives - economic, strategic, and political.
"I think you have to look at your close friends," says former Central Intelligence Agency Director Stansfield Turner. "I don't see how you can limit any country that has aspirations for high-tech manufacturing."
This week, former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire begins an eight-week investigation, at President Clinton's request, into foreign spying at US nuclear-weapons laboratories.
The alleged passing of sensitive weapons information by a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to Beijing in the 1980s is proving an embarrassment to the administration.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, and on the political stump for 2000, criticize the White House for not acting quickly enough on the allegations and see it as part of a larger failed US policy toward China.
Some experts caution, though, that it would be unwise to focus exclusively on the Chinese. They say the US government - and corporate community - have plenty of file drawers that need tighter locks when it comes to preventing foreign espionage.
"Who wouldn't be interested in spying on us is the better question," says a Capitol Hill intelligence source."We've had too much focus on China ... we ought to have a more peripheral view."
Who's playing I Spy
Indeed, US government laboratories and corporate research centers remain ripe targets.
An FBI report to Congress last year identified 23 countries, "many of them so-called 'nontraditional threats' now actively targeting US proprietary economic information and critical technologies."
The FBI routinely briefs corporate security officials of US firms that operate in Australia, Ireland, Panama, South Korea, and Britain.
Any loss of America's technological edge, intelligence experts warn, could affect everything from the strong US economy to the safety of American troops, if the wrong country were to get its hands on sensitive US weapons technology.
"Intelligence is not about enemies, it's about national interests," says counterintelligence expert and former FBI agent David Majors. Mr. Majors says even friendly nations routinely conduct intelligence in the US.
In 1992, the FBI purposefully - and publicly - widened its view beyond the handful of traditional known spy countries. It now posts its national-security threat list on the Internet. In 1996, Congress passed the Foreign Economic Espionage Act, making espionage a federal crime.
"It used to be there was a main enemy, and now there are lots of lower-level adversaries," says Arthur Hulnick, who spent nearly three decades in the CIA and now teaches international relations at Boston University. "The FBI is running hundreds of active cases of people trying to steal technology."
"We know the Russians have a unit aimed at stealing technology that they inherited from the old KGB," Mr. Hulnick says. "The South Koreans have done it, the French, the Japanese. Why wouldn't they?"
History of espionage
Experts say history bears out the importance of knowing who's looking over your shoulder through dark glasses.
"We are just now getting an understanding of the level of targeting we once never paid attention to," says Majors.
He points out that during World War II the US was "eaten alive by the Russians," who were American allies at the time. "There were 230 spies in the Roosevelt administration," Majors says.
Today, the art of determining how many countries spy on the US continues to evolve - and may be paying off. Experts say there are different approaches to modern sleuthing.
"I break the world into the Russian vs. the Chinese models," says Majors. The Russian approach is to center on recruiting those who have access to sensitive secrets, such as CIA mole Aldrich Ames.
The Chinese model uses a more piecemeal approach. It has been compared to gathering a truckload of sand one grain at a time. It is also typified, Majors says, by appealing to potential agents on the basis of ethnicity or religious beliefs and the use of long-term plants.
These are agents who spend years working and rising through the ranks of an institution without spying, until activated.
A baffled public
While the intelligence community is improving its understanding of who is stealing secrets from the US, public awareness lags far behind.
"If you were the president and had to make a hard decision that involved relying on a constituency who had even a basic understanding of intelligence, then you'd have a problem," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee.
"But I think the professionals in the business, notwithstanding public perception, have fundamentally done a good job in looking out for national security," adds Mr. Goss, a former CIA agent.
Experts warn about focusing too much on China for another reason.
"I think it's becoming too much of a political football with very important relationships at stake," says Mr. Turner. "Unfortunately people can gain political advantage in our political process by doing so."