This review of “Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War With China” is from a syndication service of The Washington Post.

On Dec. 16, 2005, federal judge Florence Marie Cooper sentenced a Chinese American woman to three years’ probation, 200 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine for lying to the FBI. “I love America” was Katrina Leung’s reply.

Leung’s reaction made sense. By all accounts, her case constituted the most sensational example ever of the penetration of the FBI by Chinese intelligence. And all she got was a rap on the knuckles.

For decades during the Cold War, the most captivating spy-vs.-spy battle was the one waged between Moscow and Washington. With the rise of China, a new player has entered the game. These days, it seems, not a month goes by without an intelligence case involving alleged Chinese spies stealing American industrial secrets, or reports that China tried to pay an American to join the CIA, or Chinese hackers (perhaps from the government) breaking into the Gmail accounts of U.S. officials and human rights activists. Move over U.S.S.R., China is America’s espionage enemy No. 1.

book cover

Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War With China

By David Wise

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages

Buy the book

But, as David Wise concludes in his new book, “Tiger Trap,” the federal agencies arrayed to protect the United States have handled the threat with astounding incompetence.

The author of best-sellers on spies and counterspies, Wise is a master of page-turning nonfiction, and from that perspective “Tiger Trap” doesn’t disappoint. His book paints a sobering, sometimes pathetic picture of American law enforcement and counterintelligence forces that appear woefully incapable of coping with the challenge from China. Some of the cases Wise details seem right out of the Keystone Kops.

Wise concludes that over the past 30 years, China’s spies have learned an enormous amount about what he calls the most advanced weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the W88, a powerful warhead so small that several can be placed on one missile. Wise reports that details about the W88 significantly hastened the modernization of China’s own strategic forces. Chinese spies also have burrowed deep into the FBI’s counterintelligence operations and might have uncovered U.S. attempts to bug then-President Jiang Zemin’s private aircraft in 2001.

A half-dozen espionage cases lie at the heart of “Tiger Trap.” Wise turns his gaze most sharply on the investigation of Leung, a Chinese American who rose to prominence in Southern California with the help of $1.7 million in payments from the FBI. Leung was run as a source for more than a decade by FBI special agent J.J. Smith, a famed counterintelligence officer in Los Angeles. First problem: She became his lover and the lover of another FBI agent, Bill Cleveland, who battled Chinese spies in San Francisco. Second problem: While collecting information about China for the Americans, Leung was also working for the Ministry of State Security in Beijing as a double agent.

Leung did provide some useful intelligence to the FBI. But according to Wise, she also pilfered classified information from Smith’s briefcase after trysts in his San Marino home and passed it to her spymasters in Beijing. The FBI got to the bottom of the Leung case in 2003 after sending in one of its best investigators. But the case fell apart in court when federal prosecutors engaged in what Judge Cooper called “willful and deliberate misconduct.”

To see long excerpts from “Tiger Trap” at Google Books, click here.

Wise has written an important book about the spy-vs.-spy games that are guaranteed to capture the imagination of the next generation of espionage aficionados. One can only hope someday to hear the Chinese side of the tale.

John Pomfret, a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, is writing a book about the United States and China.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Book World Service / Washington Post Writers Group

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