America’s Other Espionage Challenge: China

With all the focus on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the damage done by China’s vigorous and continuing espionage against the United States has taken a back seat.

The preoccupation with Russia, in fact, has obscured the significant inroads made by Chinese intelligence and cyberspies. In some cases, China has proved more skillful than Russia in infiltrating American intelligence.

A case involving a former C.I.A. officer named Jerry Chun Shing Lee is a perfect example. Beginning in 2010, C.I.A. sources in China began disappearing; a dozen were reported executed and several more imprisoned. What had seemed a major success in establishing a network of C.I.A. spies inside China had been turned into a devastating intelligence failure. The C.I.A. and F.B.I., suspecting a mole, went on a secret hunt.

Mr. Lee, who had been stationed in Beijing, emerged as a prime suspect. When he stepped off a flight in New York on Jan. 15, he was arrested by the F.B.I. and charged with unlawfully retaining documents related to the national defense. But there is still no certainty that he was responsible for the loss of the agents.

The Chinese government approaches its spycraft differently from either Russia or the United States. It is often much more patient. The Chinese may take years to develop a source and plant one inside American intelligence organizations. But they have managed to do just that inside the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Pentagon and the State Department.

Some analysts attribute Beijing’s successes to an American lack of understanding of China’s approach. Paul Moore, a former China analyst for the F.B.I., explains the difference this way:

“If a beach were a target, the Russians would send in a sub, frogmen would steal ashore in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand and take them back to Moscow. The U.S. would send over satellites and produce reams of data. The Chinese would send in a thousand tourists, each assigned to collect a single grain of sand. When they returned, they would be asked to shake out their towels. And they would end up knowing more about the sand than anyone else.”

In other words, the Chinese have infinite patience. A real-life example is China’s attempt to plant a man named Glenn Shriver as a mole in the C.I.A. Mr. Shriver grew up in a Michigan suburb, learned Mandarin in college and, while a student in Shanghai in 2004, answered an ad inviting an essay on United States-China relations. A woman who called herself Amanda paid him a small fee and later introduced him to a “Mr. Wu” and “Mr. Tang.” All three were agents of China’s Ministry of State Security.

They asked him to apply for a State Department job. He flunked the Foreign Service examination twice but was paid $30,000 for trying. He was then paid $40,000 more to apply to the C.I.A.’s clandestine service. By then, the Americans were on to him. Lured back to America in 2010 for what he thought was a final screening, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to four years in prison after accepting a plea deal.

China’s most startling and disturbing coup in penetrating American intelligence agencies occurred after the F.B.I. recruited Katrina Leung, a prominent Chinese-American in Los Angeles, because she was known to have extensive contacts in the Chinese government. But later, it turned out, she had affairs with two top F.B.I. counterintelligence agents in California, James J. Smith and William Cleveland Jr., and became a double agent for some 18 years, starting in 1984.

Ms. Leung was accused of feeding F.B.I. secrets to the highest level of the Ministry of State Security after filching them from Mr. Smith’s briefcase. She was in jail or under house arrest for 21 months before accepting a plea deal that punished her with probation, community service and a fine.

China also somehow acquired the design of the W-88, a thermonuclear warhead that sits atop Trident submarine missiles. Despite a four-year investigation, led by the F.B.I., that used 300 people in 11 agencies, the mystery of how China got the plans was never solved.

In the case of Mr. Lee, he was long suspected of helping China destroy the C.I.A.’s network there. But for reasons still unexplained, he was not arrested when two small books were discovered in his hotel room and luggage as he traveled back with his family in 2012 to settle in Northern Virginia. According to court documents, the books had handwritten notes of meetings with C.I.A. sources in China, their true names and their phone numbers.

Whatever the outcome of his case, why did it take five years to arrest him? When the potentially incriminating material was discovered in 2012, the mole hunters were divided on whether to act. Counterintelligence agents prefer to catch a suspected spy in the act of passing secrets to a foreign power. They also often prefer to wait to see whether one suspect leads to others. And in this case some were leery of arresting the wrong man.

In addition, the investigators argued that there might have been causes for the damage other than a mole, like poor tradecraft by C.I.A. officers in China or a communications breach.

There is a history of intelligence agencies being penetrated by dangerous moles — notably Aldrich Ames in the C.I.A., whose betrayal led the Russians to execute 10 sources, and Robert Hanssen in the F.B.I., who spied for the Soviet Union and later Russia for 18 years and contributed to the deaths of three United States sources. Both are serving life terms.

Within the F.B.I., Chinese counterintelligence has not been the best career path. For decades, the bureau’s spy-catching resources were almost entirely concentrated on Russia. Now, meddling by Russian intelligence in the 2016 election reveals a clear threat to American democracy that overshadows Chinese spying and much else.

Still, China today is arguably a greater rival for superpower status than Russia. The C.I.A.’s shattered network in China will take years to rebuild. And despite the arrest of Mr. Lee, the counterspies have so far not explained what happened.