from china with love
homeparlor maidchina spyingcounterintelligence
interview: dan stober
photo of stober

Dan Stober is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and the co-author of A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage (Simon and Schuster, 2001). In this interview, he gives a historical overview of Chinese espionage against the United States and recounts in detail the cases of Larry Wu-Tai Chin, Gwo-Bao Min, Peter Lee, and Wen Ho Lee. Stober also discusses the roles Bill Cleveland and Katrina Leung played in these investigations. This interview was conducted July 8, 2003.

When we think of nuclear espionage, of course we think of the Soviet Union, we think of Soviet spies, we think of all that. How was the Chinese method different in your experience and understanding than, let's say, the Soviet method?

The Soviets used blackmail. The Soviets used people who had an ideological bent towards communism, and the Soviets and the United States would find weaknesses in people and exploit that. There's an FBI agent, an American obviously, who used to run prostitutes at Russian delegates to the United Nations of New York to catch them in compromising situations. The Russians did the same thing.

There's always this question of what the United States is willing to give in order to get. If you're going to establish a lot of contacts, you wind up having to give something away sometimes.

The Chinese, on the other hand, had a much different approach. They would send their scientists to America, and of course, lots and lots of students come to the United States. Many of them stay here. The approach is often described as a thousand grains of sand, which some people have objected to. But it's a pretty good description actually, and everybody gathers a little bit of information. I don't mean every Chinese person in America -- but everybody that's working for them -- and they assemble it. When Chinese scientists come to the United States, they make contacts. It's alarming to FBI agents and members of Congress who have no idea that there are Chinese scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, at Lawrence Livermore. The first time they hear this, that, "My God, in Los Alamos, you're telling me there's Chinese nuclear weapon scientists? This can't be true."

Of course the reverse is true, that American scientists have been going to China since around 1980. Once they get there, the technique of gathering information used by the Chinese, first of all, is just to talk to these people a lot. If you spend a couple of weeks with somebody and get tours of the Great Wall and banquets and trips to their ancestral homeland, if they're Chinese-American, then people talk, and there's useful information.

They also use techniques such as, after a long day at the Wall and a long banquet with lots of alcohol, you find yourself in a hotel room, perhaps surrounded by Chinese who are asking you lots and lots of questions and implying that there's an obligation for you to answer because "We've been so nice to you," or perhaps if you're Chinese-American, "to help the motherland." "And by the way, your grandmother who lives on the third floor of her apartment in Beijing, we just put her on the first floor for you, so she doesn't have to walk up the stairs anymore." If that sort of technique gleans one piece of information, fine. Tomorrow there'll be another piece of information.

In the late 1970s, what was the state of play of the Chinese nuclear program? Where were they vis-à-vis us?

The Chinese tested their first weapon in 1964. It's a fission weapon … a uranium weapon. Then a few years later, they developed the hydrogen bomb. They did not build terribly sophisticated weapons. The Chinese actually used their weapons as deterrents, and they were pretty clever about this. They said, "We don't need the fancy weapons, the very small weapons with the very sophisticated missiles that the Americans have. All we need is enough to threaten Los Angeles, really. If we can reach the West Coast of the United States with nuclear weapons, the United States is not going to mess with us. That's all the deterrence we need," and they are absolutely right.

So you get to the late 1970s, however, and they start wanting to develop more sophisticated weapons. They're interested in the neutron bomb, for example. …

So the Chinese then -- as these visits back and forth between Chinese nuclear weapon scientists and American nuclear weapons scientists really get going in the early 1980s, they are probing the Americans for how to build smaller nuclear weapons. Now, it may be counterintuitive to think smaller is better. We're not talking about smaller explosions, necessarily. It's smaller in size and smaller in weight, which is tricky. It's easy to build a big bomb. The smaller they are, the lighter they are, the farther they'll go on a missile, which makes them more valuable, and the more warheads you can put on a missile.

So they are not subtle after a while. They are asking things like, "How many detonators do you put on your bomb, and where are they? Is there one at each end?" The original bombs had 32 detonators, and the Americans, over a period of time starting in the 1950s, reduced that to two detonators, and that's one of the secrets. It's sort of an obvious thing to do. But what the Chinese want from the Americans is to know if the Americans actually did it. "If it was good enough for the Americans, it's good enough for us." …

What was Tiger Trap?

…Gwo-Bao Min, the scientist, was born in Taiwan in 1939, the same year that Wen Ho Lee was born. [He] eventually comes to the United States, gets his Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan, and eventually, around 1975, winds up at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, not terribly far from here. Eventually he has contacts with Chinese scientists, as do many other scientists in the late 1970s.

The FBI and the CIA do have some success in penetrating China. That's the good news as far as the American security is concerned. They got a tip from a spy inside China they should pay some attention to the scientist named Gwo-Bao Min, and so they do. Among the things the FBI does is look at the safe at Lawrence Livermore. In his safe, they find a collection of documents that were pretty much unrelated to the work he did at the lab. He'd gone to the lab's technical library and rounded up a whole lot of information about weapons. He kept it in his safe. This just startled the heck out of everybody.

The FBI got a special spy warrant called the FISA warrant, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that allowed them to monitor his telephone, to bug his house, to read his mail, to read his e-mail, to check his trash. They begin to discover correspondence between him and the Chinese, in part because the Chinese send him letters via the American U.S. Postal Service, and with "tasking" him, as the expression goes, with questions. "These are some things we'd like to know."

You mean they're not any more sophisticated than this? I thought there would be dead drops at phone booths outside restaurants.

Well, a good question. The Chinese don't do dead drops; the Chinese don't do phone booths. The Chinese would much rather have you come to China and "Let's sit around and talk." Or "Talk to us in the United States and don't go steal documents for us. We don't want you to steal documents; it just gets you caught. You're doing this for the betterment of the world," or if they're playing it here, "You're Chinese-American, Taiwanese- or mainland (Chinese]-American. Help the motherland. You're all overseas Chinese. We're a poor country; America's a rich country. It's not going to hurt America to help us." It's that sort of pitch. Yes, they use the United States mail. It's not been published before, but it's true.

So the FBI stops Gwo-Bao Min in an airport in 1981 and searches his luggage, or searches him, and finds the answers to five questions he's carrying on an index card on his way to China. They confront him. He is interviewed by an FBI agent named Bill Cleveland, who was in the San Francisco office and is an expert on Chinese, speaks Chinese, knows the language, knows the culture, is viewed as more intellectual than most FBI agents. He didn't just sort of try to beat up on people. He really understands the nuances of things. Cleveland feels like he's pushed Gwo-Bao Min right to the edge of a confession, but he doesn't quite get there. Perhaps he doesn't get there because Gwo-Bao Min is innocent; let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

But if he's not innocent -- one version of the story goes that Min goes home and talks to his wife. His wife puts some steel in his backbone, and he stops talking to the FBI. The FBI arranges for him to be fired. He's allowed to resign actually, because that's the easy way out. He still lives, to this day ... where he lived in the 1970s. …

They let him go until what's now a famous scene in 1991, when Bill Cleveland, the same FBI agent who had interrogated him, goes to China to do a tour of the embassy and consulates around the country for security reasons. He's in a hotel in northern China. In the lobby, he almost physically runs into Gwo-Bao Min. It was hard to tell which one was the most surprised, Gwo-Bao Min or Bill Cleveland. It's just stunning. They go their separate ways. …

So there is a famous telephone intercept, a phone call that occurs. Tell me about the telephone call?

After Gwo-Bao Min is fired from Lawrence Livermore in 1981, the FBI continues to tap his telephone, because when someone's fired, they know they're under investigation. Intuitively you might think they're going to be quiet, but sometimes they get scared and get on the telephone and call for help, or they think the investigation is over and nobody's going to fool with them anymore. At any rate, the FBI keeps monitoring his telephone calls.

So one day in December 1982, the FBI tapes a [call] and they hear this phone call to Min's home. The caller on the line identifies himself as Wen Ho Lee and the FBI just never heard of this guy. They're not even sure what his name really is. He identifies himself as a weapons designer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. You can imagine the agents are sitting in the office or in a van or wherever they are, their ears immediately perk up.

Wen Ho Lee says, "I understand we have a mutual friend. I understand you're in some kind of trouble. I have contacts in Taiwan. Perhaps I can help find out who squealed on you." Now, they're talking in Chinese and the actually words are "who made little reports," which translates basically as "squeal." Min just doesn't seem to want to talk to him, and he gets off the telephone.

But the FBI is alarmed; all bells go off. They immediately start an investigation of Wen Ho Lee. They do this by claiming they're doing a routine background investigation for the renewal of his security clearance. They talk to lots of people, and they turn up some interesting things.

A year goes by, because they don't want to alert him. It's the way the FBI always works. They don't want to alert the subject, so sometimes that's a good technique. In the Wen Ho Lee case, it blew up on them every time. Every piece of information they ever got about Lee that's worth knowing came from Lee himself, because they actually went around and talked to him.

In this case, they go talk to him, and Wen Ho Lee says, "No, no, no, Gwo-Bao Min, no, don't know him and wouldn't know how to get in touch with him. No." Nothing. So the FBI goes away and scratch their heads. A couple months later, they go back to see Wen Ho Lee and bring him the transcript of his phone conversation with Min saying, "Here, this is you. This is the date you made the call, this is the transcript." Lee, at that point, starts backtracking. This is the pattern of his behavior, he backtracks when presented with evidence.

Eventually, there's also a polygraph examination in 1984, in which he backtracks once again, another part of it. Lee eventually says, "OK, I called this guy up because I thought he was doing the same thing I'd been doing. He got in trouble for it; maybe I would get in trouble for it. What we had been doing had nothing to do with spying for China."

Lee was confused. He was often confused about the world. Lee had been giving unclassified documents about nuclear reactor safety to the Taiwanese government and had been helping them out. That was Lee's original specialty, writing computer codes that described how reactors work with the safety monitors. So he got in his head, because Min was Taiwanese-American, that Min was doing the same stuff. He wanted to help him out; he wanted to check this out. It was a convoluted story, but ultimately sounded believable.

However, Lee still wasn't telling the truth about it, because the FBI by this point knew that Lee had been calling the equivalent of the Taiwanese embassy in Washington because they had his phone records. Lee said that wasn't true, it couldn't be true, until they showed Lee the phone records. Then he backtracks and says, "OK, yes." Eventually Lee gets around to saying that some of these documents, while unclassified, were stamped "NOFORN," which stands for no foreign dissemination, which means you can't give them to a foreign government, even an ally like Taiwan, without official permission.

No real damage to national security was done. Not even a law was broken. However, what it showed early on was that Wen Ho Lee was willing to break the rules.

When the FBI begins to go in, they hear this guy Wen Ho Lee's name, is Cleveland involved in that pursuit of Wen Ho Lee?

Yes, Cleveland is very much involved in that. He's in charge of it, because it's a direct offspring of the Min case. The actual interrogation of Lee down in Los Alamos was done by FBI agents in New Mexico, one named Jerry Brown who actually has a very good reputation. But Cleveland was in charge. So Cleveland knows everything about the case, beginning to end -- and one of the things about the Min case and the Lee case is they revolve around design details of nuclear weapons. They're not cases where the FBI doesn't have to understand the design of the weapons. "Somebody gave something away -- that's all we need to know."

It was never very clear what Lee or Min gave away. You really had to get to the nitty-gritty technical details to understand. It was thought Min, for example, if he gave anything away, might not only have given away the neutron bomb, but might have given away secrets to a whole bunch of other weapons, at least some details about them. In fact, things that Wen Ho Lee was later accused of giving away had been given away by Min.

Min had access to these kind of things?

Min went to the technical library to get access. In his normal course of business, he would have some access, but not as much as he gave himself. That's one of the things that's worrisome about Cleveland. If you want to worry about Cleveland, you want to worry that he's got a head full of nuclear weapons knowledge as well as a head full of counterintelligence and intelligence.

Who is Bill Cleveland? When did he cross your radar screen? What's the first time you remember hearing his name? How hard a nut is he to crack?

Yes, Bill Cleveland is different than most FBI agents. First of all, his father was an FBI agent. But also, he's better looking than most of them are, he dresses better than most of them are, he's more urbane, he's soft spoken, he's got great hair. He's seen as an intellectual. Everybody likes Bill Cleveland. I've only met him a couple of times. I like Bill Cleveland. He just seems like the most wonderful guy in the world and truly has seemingly no [enemies] -- because the FBI has jealousies and fractions like any organization -- but everybody seems to like Bill Cleveland.

Cleveland came across what I wrote about Gwo-Bao Min in 1990 without knowing Min's name. As time went on, people began to tell me stories about how Bill Cleveland had interrogated him, and said he got him right to the point of confessing and the whole story about Min and Cleveland running into each other in China. It was a fabulous story. Cleveland told everybody that story, so in certain circles, certain counterintelligence circles, that story was widespread.

What did it mean to you that Cleveland would tell that story to lots of people?

Several things. He told that story at times as a counterintelligence warning story. He would go around to the labs and tell the story of Gwo-Bao Min and say, "Chinese espionage is serious. You guys are targets, and you've got to do something about it." I also think he told it because it's a great story, especially about running into him in China. …

So how did Cleveland tell the Gwo-Bao Min story? What did he say?

The confession is everything in these cases. You hope and pray for a confession, in part because that's the easy way. You don't have to worry about using classified information being disclosed in a court setting. You get a confession, you're home free. That's the hope.

So you prepare and you prepare and you prepare. Every alley that the person being questioned might go down, you want to be able to get in front of him. You want to set them up emotionally, you want to hack away at their defenses. They didn't have a lot to deal with in this case, but that's how Cleveland would have prepared. He would have known everything he was going to do before he ever got there. He felt he had [Min] right to the brink of the confession; then he didn't confess, and he went home. And the next day that was it -- no more talking.

Anybody ever tell you what Cleveland's response probably was to coming that close and missing? How does he react?

Oh, he was banging his hand against his forehead, enormously frustrated. This was it. You can spend a career in counterintelligence and never have an arrest. One of the interesting things about Cleveland, he has this grand reputation and no big arrests anywhere in his career.

Why?

Why not? Well, because Min didn't confess. [Now] of course people are looking back at Cleveland and saying, "Yes, good question. Why no arrests? Why did the cases he'd deal with seem to get screwed up in some way or another?"

Min doesn't confess. One of the very key things about the early investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the 1982-1983-1984 investigation in which Cleveland is in charge, is that after Lee confesses to lying to the FBI, to handing over documents to the Taiwanese embassy, he's not fired. Lee's security clearance isn't pulled, and the FBI could certainly arrange that. They arrange it all the time. They arranged it for Gwo-Bao Min, and they don't do that [for Wen Ho Lee].

What do you think the strategy was? Cleveland could have done that, he could have made that happen?

Cleveland could have made that happen in a heartbeat. You go to the Department of Energy and tell them everything that's happened and say, "We recommend his clearance be pulled," and it would be pulled. Nobody would argue with you. As a matter of fact, the Bellows Report, which is the Justice Department report that was released in the wake of the Wen Ho Lee case, concluded that was a significant failing of the early Wen Ho Lee investigations -- not to get the guy out of Los Alamos.

Can we lay that at Cleveland's feet?

He was in charge, so you do, yes, and no one knows, because Cleveland's not talking, I don't know exactly why Cleveland did that. However, the same year that decision is reached to really not go after Wen Ho Lee's security clearance, Wen Ho's wife Sylvia becomes an informant for the FBI. You could ask the question about if there's a link there.

What would the link be?

The link would be it was a deal, spoken or unspoken. The FBI gets a very good informant, because Wen Ho Lee's wife was the liaison to Chinese nuclear weapon scientists and the American nuclear weapon scientists. She was the narrow part of the hourglass. She translated documents, she translated phone calls. She went to China, she and Wen Ho hosted parties, dinners for visiting Chinese scientists, because Wen Ho Lee liked to cook. She was a great source, and maybe that's the tradeoff.

The idea that [for example,] there are these secrets for which people would be arrested, [which] were not really secrets, were not really part of anything that [the prosecution] really needed to have. What's your reporting reveal about that?

There's always this question of what the United States is willing to give in order to get. If you're going to establish a lot of contacts, you wind up having to give something away sometimes. That sort of information is usually cleared very carefully. If it's something related to nuclear weapons and with the nuclear weapons people and the FBI and the CIA, etc., etc., [there's] a great deal of conversation and thought. …

On the other hand, maybe it's a security risk. … But this just scares the FBI to death when they hear this sort of thing. "Oh, my God, there are scientists out there talking about giving away information to the Chinese? How is that possible?"

[Do you think] that is borne out of the FBI's own lack of kind of sophistication about politics and their mission in the world? Their own racism?

It comes out of the Cold War of course, in part, where any contact with the enemy is suspect. It also would be surprising to anybody, and it's incompetence on the part of the FBI that they didn't understand all this is going on. The nuclear weapons world was a world of geeks; gearheads, the physicists, were not their kind of guys. They just weren't embedded. They didn't understand this stuff.

Cleveland did?

Cleveland did, by all accounts, because-- It started out he understood something about China. You have people in the CIA world that don't know anything about China, and that's a rather big drawback if you're working China. There's an FBI agent named Ed Appel who worked with Cleveland in San Francisco, who very aptly describes the FBI horror at the idea that Chinese-American scientists are going back and forth and visiting each other. Appel says, "I'm more afraid of a visiting physicist than I am an intelligent agent. I worry about the scientist who shares his formula with the other guy because they have a wink, a smile, and a handshake, and they're going to save the world together."

There's some element of truth to that, of course. All these scientists are part of this worldwide scientific brotherhood, fraternity, and there are darn few people in the world who work on nuclear weapons. At the end of the Cold War, for example, the Russian and the American scientists got together and it's like long-lost brothers. They were in love with each other, they couldn't stay away from each other, because after all, who else can you talk to about this stuff?

So this scares the FBI to death, and here we have the Chinese and the Americans doing the same thing. Chinese graduate students would come through Los Alamos for the summer. The son of an important Chinese nuclear weapon scientist stayed with Wen Ho Lee in his house for a while once. This just goes beyond anything the FBI can imagine. …

Why did Cleveland leave [the FBI] in 1993?

Other than to take that job, I don't know. To tell you the truth, I don't know. He ends his affair with Katrina Leung in 1993 when he leaves the FBI, and he had been sleeping with her from 1988 to 1993. He quits when he goes to Livermore, but starts it up again in 1997 and 1999, both times when sort of interesting things were happening vis-à-vis China. …

So when Bill Cleveland comes back from the famous trip with I.C., and he comes to San Francisco, a month or so goes by. Somehow an informant gives him a tape, or he hears a tape of Parlor Maid talking to Mao, a spy himself, right? Was he an MSS guy?

Yes, I think he was.

Tell me what you know about that version or that part of the story.

The tape presumably does not come from an informant. It comes from U.S. eavesdropping. It comes from the NSA, or possibly the FBI or CIA. They play it for Cleveland, and there's a little murkiness there. Do they play it for Cleveland, knowing who it really is, and see what Cleveland will say? That would be an investigative technique. Or, they in fact do not know who Parlor Maid is, who this person, this voice on the tape is, and they're asking Cleveland if Cleveland recognizes it as the woman he's sleeping with -- which has got to be a shock and a horrible moment.

Let's pretend just for a moment that we don't know he's sleeping with her. Imagine the character Bill Cleveland, listening to this tape and recognizing Parlor Maid. How would he have known Parlor Maid's voice? Is it likely he's heard other tapes? Is it likely that Los Angeles has shared the sound of her voice with him, or maybe he's even met her officially?

He might have met her officially. He certainly knew about her beyond any doubt at that point. He knew J.J. Smith, and J.J. Smith squired Parlor Maid, Katrina Leung, all over Los Angeles, so there'd be no reason that he couldn't have known. So theoretically, he might have known her voice, the sound of her voice, just from having met her somewhere.

But you can imagine him listening to this tape and thinking, standing in a room with other people, "Oh, my God, oh my God, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? What do I say? This is very bad," and his mind spinning with the possible consequences of this. Because if there's really a problem with Parlor Maid, he's got a problem too, and how do you handle it? What do you do? Here's a guy, as far as we know, is honest. But he's got himself in this tangled web he's woven.

So he calls J.J. Smith and [says], "What the hell is going on?" The outcome of this is supposedly, eventually, J.J. Smith brings her up to San Francisco and meets with Cleveland in a hotel room and makes her apologize to Cleveland -- which is not behavior that's in the FBI handbook.

What do you mean, "He makes her apologize?"

Parlor Maid, Katrina, has gotten Bill and J.J. in deep trouble by contacting Mao and getting herself wiretapped. So it doesn't make any sense unless you see all this as personal relationships. Now the question is, does Bill know J.J.'s sleeping with Katrina? Does J.J. know Bill's sleeping with Katrina? If so, when?

You have no answer?

I have no answer to that question. It's hard to fathom. Well, it's not hard to fathom they don't know, if you conclude Katrina Leung is really a spy, in which case she would keep them very separate. If she's just a person who happens to be having an affair with two FBI agents, she might wind up telling them that.

It sounds to me if she's having an affair with the two FBI agents -- and apparently she is -- that she's the hunter/gatherer, and not the other way around?

There are Chinese-Americans who say that is an outrage that you would assume that. We say that she was the tool of the FBI, and her husband of all people, held a press conference and said, "She never did anything the FBI didn't ask for." So you have to believe that two FBI agents separately seduced her, which is equally hard to believe. If she's a spy, then yes, she's the hunter. But what if she's not a spy? How did this happen? They just happened to all fall in love? It's hard to explain.

Is that what have you come to believe?

Yes, but Los Angeles is much worse than San Francisco. Oh, based on no evidence that's not public, I would have to think that she was doubling up as a double agent. In fact, she was supposed to be a double agent. She was an informant for the FBI who was supposed to be pretending to also be an informant for China. The FBI [is] saying she really was an informant for China; she wasn't pretending. She is heard on this tape talking to her handler, Mao, which is a not very inventive name to use, and describing FBI agents. She gives away the fact that Cleveland and I.C. Smith are about to go to China to do this tour of American offices there.

Her luggage was searched as you know, and they found pictures of FBI agents, although the pictures apparently came from an FBI newsletter or something. It wasn't terribly useful.

Which brings up another question about nuclear weapons espionage and China, and that is, does any of this matter at all? Does it ever lead to anything? Let's assume China stole nuclear weapon secrets on how to modernize nuclear weapons. In fact, they tested a small nuclear weapon in 1992. They've never fielded these weapons. They've never put them on mobile missiles, they've never increased the number of warheads on submarine launch missiles. So far, it's added up to nothing.

What happened with the Peter Lee case, and where [does it fit] on the continuum?

Peter Lee, another scientist born in Taiwan, goes to college with Sylvia Lee [Wen Ho Lee's wife] and Gwo-Bao Min, although they apparently don't know each other. [He] comes to the United States in the 1970s, becomes a naturalized citizen, goes to work for Lawrence Livermore, also works at Los Alamos for a while, works for the contractor TRW. He is a guy who got around to all the bases.

He is approached by the Chinese. He talks to them eventually, in a classic hotel room approach in China, in which he's asked for information and he gives some up. He's then taken to another hotel full of Chinese scientists who pepper him with questions. He starts talking, and he's drawing diagrams. Part of what they asked him about was something called laser fusion, which is to use giant stadium-sized lasers to compress a target the size of a pea that then blows up in a thermonuclear explosion, somewhat like the hydrogen bomb. So it's useful for scientists to model and to predict how hydrogen bombs might work and write codes. He tells them some of the classified secrets about it.

Later on, he also tells them about something that was probably a lot more sensitive -- that America had learned to use microwave radar to follow submerged submarines by looking at the tiny, tiny wakes they would leave on the surface that were just about impossible to see. He takes a picture to them. He explains to them how to adjust their equipment, in essence, to make this useful. All this is classified.

He comes to the attention of the Americans in the mid-1980s through, again, a spy in China. Somebody's doing something right, but the intelligence world is sort of vague. Sometimes you get a hint that there's a guy named Peter Lee who's been here and seems to be talking too much. That's not much to go on, and the FBI starts an investigation. They get a FISA warrant, they put a microphone in an air conditioning duct in his house, which his wife eventually discovers when she's dusting, of all things. When they finally move on Peter and confront him, he starts faxing China, saying, "Send me some receipts for my trip there, because you paid for my trip, and I want it to look like I paid for it myself."

The FBI was having his fax machine bugged. He eventually confesses. It is once again that FBI nightmare, the Chinese-American scientist who is befriended by the Chinese who say, "Help us, we're a poor country." In fact, he gives away information.

When it came time to sentencing, the government wanted to send him to the Big House for a long time. But they ran into problems, one of which was [that] the laser fusion information had since been declassified. So it was classified at the time, but now it's not classified, so how valuable could it be? The judge is thinking, "What kind of prison time do I give him?" The much more valuable satellite tracing of submarines information, the Department of Defense was reluctant to talk about very much.

As it turned out, there was miscommunication. The Department of Defense thought that the Justice Department had other good evidence that would send Peter Lee away. They claimed afterwards if they'd known how important it was for them to testify, they would have been more willing. But he winds up getting a little bit of time in a halfway house and is a free man. I don't know what he's doing.

If you're an FBI Chinese counterintelligence guy like Cleveland or any of the other people out there on the staff, or even in Washington, how does the Peter Lee case, the Wen Ho Lee case, the Gwo-Bao Min case-- How do you read that, and what is the effect on you?

The effect is that all this is true, that everything we've thought about how China works is true, and the weapons labs are penetrated to the max. All these graduate students, all these visiting scientists, because a big deal was made about scientists who'd come for a conference. A visiting scientist would stay at Los Alamos for a year and no one kept track of him. In theory, they had one scientist who's supposed to be their host to keep track of them. But some of them got separated from their host for months at a time, and of course you have a whole life. You have a social life if you're a visiting scientist; you're in people's homes.

These cases tell the FBI that we're completely penetrated, we've lost every suit we could ever lose, and no one cares at the labs. In fact, the labs are more interested in science than security. There's no doubt about that. …

Bill Cleveland was lost in the counterintelligence world. When you're in this world where everything is secret, you can't even talk to other FBI agents about it, who are you going to talk to about your life and about your work? You're going to talk to other people in the same world. You're going to talk about your marriage problems to counterintelligence people at Los Alamos, for example, and you're going to talk about the frustrations of your marriage and your work to maybe an FBI informant, maybe Katrina Leung. Then she starts asking you about your life. It feels like a safe person to talk to. She's in the same world where they all don't have any secrets from each other over here, and it's a high-pressure job.

There's the FBI agents who'll tell you it's the most exciting thing you can do maybe next to organized crime. It's a great, great job. But you may never make an arrest. Bill Cleveland at least never made a high-profile arrest. You may claim that the highlight of your career was to shut down some little Chinese-owned company in Silicon Valley that you think was stealing secrets and was a front company for the Chinese government. If we believe the statistics, there's lots of those companies. If you shut down one of them without any arrests -- that's the highlight of your career? Well, it's a small world if that's all you've got to brag about, so you talk to people in the same world. I think it's probably what Bill Cleveland has done. Makes you vulnerable.

Do you know anything about the meeting in Washington where J.J. Smith and Cleveland went to talk about--

No, I really don't. … I try to see Smith and Cleveland in this meeting, trying as good citizens to tell the truth as best they can; at the same time, never saying that they're sleeping with this woman.

Speaking of two lives-- That's just got to be torture. It's just got to be very hard to do. So you wind up with Cleveland -- great guy though he may be -- he's lying continuously by omission or commission. Every time he fills out a report about what he's doing, he should be saying, "I'm sleeping with an informant." He's not saying that, and of course he's not telling his wife that, he's not telling his friends that. I can't imagine he's telling the truth in that meeting in Washington. He's got to be lying, because he's tangled up in this thing, and I'm sure he's not happy about that.

[Were past Chinese espionage cases] compromised...after the Smith-Katrina Leung revelation, from your point of view, from what you know about these cases?

Well, you have to [go back]. That's the way it works. Cleveland is deeply involved with Gwo-Bao Min, he's deeply involved in Wen Ho Lee, he is involved in the Peter Lee case. When Peter Lee's arrested, Cleveland is at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and is helping the FBI agents try to learn what he did at Lawrence Livermore. So he's there. Gwo-Bao Min doesn't confess, Wen Ho Lee doesn't get fired, Peter Lee is arrested in some fairly minor things.

You have to go back and the connection would be, if Cleveland is talking to Katrina about these things, that she's telling the Chinese. The Chinese theoretically could be telling their sources at the labs, "Look out, look out."

But [Cleveland is] a super sleuth, a super spy. Is he actually giving her things on purpose, or is it just--?

Nobody that I know thinks there's any chance that Bill Cleveland is a traitor to his country. However, he's working with an informant he trusts and he's talking shop, there's pillow talk. She knew that he was going to China. She shouldn't have known that, but they were probably asking for advice. "What do we do? Who should we talk to? Where do we go? Help us out here."

In those sorts of conversations, things get shared. They always get shared. So you do have to go back and see what's what. You know, there's a scientist in Los Alamos who worked with Cleveland and thinks one of his meetings with an informant was bugged. Now he's wondering, because Bill Cleveland was involved, "Did Cleveland tell somebody I was meeting in this hotel room? Is that why my hotel room is bugged?" So people all over have to go back and rethink these things. …

You met Cleveland?

Briefly.

What were the circumstances? What was it like?

I talked to him on the phone a couple of times long enough for him to tell me, "I don't talk about my work." So at the time everything became public about his affair with Parlor Maid, he was ironically teaching a class at San Jose State University on espionage, and the next day, his name is on the front page of the newspaper. He has to explain this to his class and of course to his department head. Well, this is so typical of Bill Cleveland -- everybody loves him. His class says, "No, don't quit. Don't quit. We want you to stay." The university says, "What you're teaching is really relevant now, don't go away. Please stay."

So I went down to his office to visit him in his office, just talk to him at San Jose State, knocked on the door and chatted with him for a few minutes. I heard the same line, "I don't talk about my work." But we chatted about other things, mutual friends, etc., for awhile. I came away with the same impression everybody else did -- erudite, smart, very human, soft spoken, clearly upset about what had happened to his life. You come away wishing the best for him, because that's the effect he has on people. …

[Can you connect] the moments that Cleveland and Parlor Maid come together with key moments in the trajectory of the larger espionage, the Chinese espionage or counterintelligence story?

They start their affair in 1988, which, by coincidence, is the year that Wen Ho Lee is approached in the hotel room in Beijing with the secrets of the W88. They end their affair in 1993, when Cleveland leaves the FBI and goes to Lawrence Livermore. They pick it up again in 1995, which is during the campaign finance scandal, and which, if you were the Chinese government, would love to know what the FBI was up to and what angles they were pursuing. Then it ends. Then it picks up again in 1997, about the time when everyone is really focusing on the loss of the W88.

Whether that means anything, we don't know. But if I was a Chinese intelligence service, I'd certainly want to know what the FBI was up to and experiencing.

They've already not been charged with espionage. They've been charged with minor things. It appears that the case is kind of unraveling, at least a little bit. You've followed all these cases all the way along. Is this one going to unravel?

Yes, this one may very well unravel. Now, they've played it smarter than they did with Wen Ho Lee. If they don't overcharge the case-- They're not charging anybody with treason. It's sort of fairly minor things, but J.J. Smith has Wen Ho Lee's lawyers, and one of them, John Kline, also represented Ollie North and really learned a lot about a graymail defense.

"Graymail" defense comes from the phrase "blackmail," but it's not quite so nefarious, [and it's] when the defense demands to get access to all sorts of classified information. They cannot go forward with the defense without that information, and they convince the judge. Once this gets into the court system, it inevitably becomes public, and inevitably it's the government that makes the mistakes and gives away classified information.

So how these cases often work is the government eventually just bails out, just gives up and says, "We don't want to run the risk of exposing more classified information." I'm sure that J.J. Smith's lawyers will go full steam ahead. They'll say, "We have to know everything there is to know about Katrina Leung, everything she ever worked on. We're going to say the FBI told her to do everything she ever did and we need all the documents around it, which will tell us everything about what we know about Chinese intelligence."

The government will try to say, "You don't need to know that. These are reasonably minor charges," and John Kline's very good at that. We'll see where it goes. I think it could fall apart. …

And the lesson for the American people who watch this, and sort of scratch their head, and say, "What am I supposed to make out of all this?" What does it mean?

People used to ask my co-author and I what the lesson of the Wen Ho Lee case was. We would say, "Get a competent FBI. Be looking for giant answers." That was our answer. Realize that the FBI isn't very good and needs to be better and you see the same thing in this case. It also is an indication that China has a large espionage program against the United States. Of course it does. Why wouldn't it? As a country, that's what their intelligence service is supposed to do.

But for as long as I've been an adult, I've always heard that the Chinese dragon is about to wake up and take over the world and they're going to do this with nuclear weapons. To this day, they don't have advanced nuclear weapons. They still have old lumbering missiles with one warhead on the top, and it seems to be enough. So how much does all this really mean? It's hard to say. It's a wonderful world and it surfaces in sexy ways, but does it change your daily life? Probably not. Probably if they're stealing commercial secrets, the loss of jobs is more important than any of these nuclear weapon secrets. …

 

home + introduction + the "parlor maid" case + how china spies + inside fbi counterintelligence
interviews + join the discussion + producer's chat
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi

posted january 15, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

 

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS