By KENJI MINEMURA/ Senior Staff Writer
April 26, 2020 at 13:20 JST
WASHINGTON--In a U.S. District Court in Virginia in November 2019, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for national security remained in disbelief over a U.S. intelligence disaster in China.
“In just over a year, we have convicted three Americans for committing espionage offenses on behalf of the Chinese government,” John Demers said.
“Sadly, all three are former members of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
Demers then urged the court to impose severe punishment to Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA officer, on trial for charges of leaking national defense secrets to China.
Another former CIA officer was sentenced to prison in May 2019 and a former Defense Intelligence Agency employee was punished with a similar fate in September.
However, the case against Lee, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison, has sent the biggest shock waves throughout the United States. His conviction exposed the growing enmity between the two nations and the emergence of China as a strategic rival to the United States. China's emboldened actions could be seen as a potential harbinger for the second coming of the Cold War.
According to the court documents, Lee, a U.S. citizen originally from Hong Kong, worked for the CIA from 1994 to 2007 in Tokyo, Beijing and other locales.
After leaving the CIA, Lee returned to Hong Kong where he was contacted by Chinese intelligence agents in April 2010. At that time, he had handed over sensitive U.S. data to Chinese authorities in exchange for several hundreds of thousands of dollars. This data included names and contacts of CIA operatives and confidential informants as well as clandestine communication methods, a level of betrayal not seen since the height of the Cold War.
In May 2017, The New York Times reported that a cataclysmic shakeup had occurred in the extensive spy network that the United States had built throughout China.
According to the Times, a dozen CIA informants were murdered between 2010 and 2012. Some were even shot to death in the courtyard of government buildings as a warning to the United States.
Government sources on both sides mentioned that the purge was triggered by “the information Lee handed over to China.”
Some have even compared Lee’s case with Aldrich Ames, whom the CIA describes as “one of the most damaging moles in CIA history.”
Ames worked in the agency’s Soviet counterintelligence division during the Cold War era. As a double agent for the KGB, he compromised numerous CIA assets. More than 10 people, including top Soviet military officials, were executed as a result.
To some in the intelligence community, Lee’s case eerily resembles the dark era when the United States engaged in a fierce and dangerous clash against another global power.
This time, the enemy is China.
According to a former CIA official, the U.S.-China rivalry dates back to the early 2000s.
Past U.S. administrations had adopted an “engagement policy” with China, steering the fledgling superpower in East Asia as a supporting player in the U.S.-led international order.
And yet, their efforts were regularly being undermined by Chinese intelligence officials who pursued their own agenda. This prompted U.S. officials to keep a close watch on the actions and movements of the Chinese intelligence community.
Policy-wise, the tide also changed after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
Former CIA Director Mike Pompeo was appointed as Secretary of State.
Michael Pillsbury, an influential Pentagon adviser who has acted as a key figure in determining the administration's China policy, stated that "past administrations in the United States have been deceived by China.”
A strong sense of distrust against China that had long been harbored in intelligence circles was now evident in the stance of key officials in the White House.
HERE COMES THE VIRUS
Adding fuel to the fire, the recent coronavirus pandemic has aggravated distrust and intensified the info wars between the United States and China.
At a news conference on April 2, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked about a U.S. media report citing several intelligence officials who questioned China’s transparency about the severity of the pandemic.
According to this report, China underreported the total number of cases and deaths related to COVID-19 to cover up the severity of the outbreak.
Hua clapped back at the accusation.
“We sympathize with the people in the U.S. who are facing a severe situation. I can also imagine why some U.S. (officials) are trying so hard to shift the blame.”
“We don't want to instigate a meaningless argument with them. But in response to their endless, immoral slanders, I feel I have no choice but to take a few moments once again to clarify the truth of the matter,” Hua added.
After explaining the timeline of China’s response to the deadly virus, Hua emphasized her final point, “I've seen many reports calling on U.S. officials to stop seeking excuses and scapegoats for their delayed and haphazard response.”
A U.S. government official in charge of East Asia diplomacy noted that the Trump administration detected something unusual as early as December 2019.
Early information gathering made it possible for the administration to impose a travel ban to China starting from Jan. 30, which was ahead of other countries, the official claimed.
At the time, the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus in China was just about to hit the 10,000 mark. Yet, no other country had forbidden the public from traveling to China.
The Japanese government had merely issued an advisory for the public not to visit Hubei province, where Wuhan, the epicenter of the deadly virus, is located.
By early December, cases of pneumonia of undetermined causes were reported in Wuhan. Several local physicians began to recognize the potential threat and raised the alarm via social media. One such doctor was Li Wenliang, who was later infected with the deadly virus and died.
One by one, these posted messages were quickly and quietly removed from social media.
While this was occurring, U.S. Consulate staff in Wuhan and CIA officers took a proactive approach and saved the information, according to a U.S. official.
In fact, they contacted and interviewed medical personnel in Wuhan.
Intelligence agencies, together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), analyzed these testimonies and began to formulate their suspicions about an unknown virus.
With the information from Wuhan in hand, the U.S. government demanded an explanation from its Chinese counterparts as to what was really going on, while tracking the outbreak status using satellite images and wiretaps.
“We knew even before the Chinese government released the information that the virus was extremely infectious and that there were many asymptomatic patients,” noted a high-ranking U.S. official.
Based on their intelligence gathering, the Trump administration quickly imposed the travel ban.
For this reason, government officials, including National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, have insisted the administration’s initial response to the virus outbreak was successful.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on March 11, O’Brien claimed that the travel ban was a “courageous decision” by Trump and it “bought the United States six to eight weeks to prepare for the virus.”
These moves impressed at least one Japanese government official involved in setting diplomatic strategy vis-a-vis with China.
“Both the department in charge of foreign relations and intelligence agencies and health divisions have banded together,” the official said. “Their information-gathering capabilities are impressive.”
Nevertheless, the United States has failed to contain the novel coronavirus, which cannot be stopped by border control efforts alone.
Ignoring warnings and advisories from the CDC and others, Trump himself kept downplaying the threat and spreading a false sense of optimism.
When the deadly virus hit the United States via Europe and other routes, it was all too late.
As of April 24, the number of COVID-19 patients exceeded 895,000 in the United States, with more than 50,000 deaths.
The Trump administration is now under fire from experts and others for wasting precious time and not following the advance warnings sounded by the intelligence community.
Democrats, health experts and critics of the administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak are also demanding that Trump and his staff be held accountable.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted the global order and undermined the status quo, has already had major repercussions for the world’s leading economies.
While the United States is struggling to contain the spread of the virus and minimize the economic hardship to its citizens, China has announced that it has successfully contained the virus with far fewer cases than in the United States.
Within the next few months, China may capitalize on this “window of opportunity” to push its agenda globally while many other nations are spending all their efforts on recovering from the devastation that the coronavirus has left in its wake.
Kenji Minemura, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, worked as the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent in Washington, D.C., and was previously a correspondent in Beijing. He is also a researcher at Hokkaido University Public Policy School.
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