The forgotten 'spy' case of a rocket scientist

By Peter Grier ([email protected])
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


Born in China, he perfected his scientific skills in the United States, working on secret military projects. Though a model figure to his co-workers, the FBI was suspicious - agents thought him a spy, threw him in jail, and tormented him by flicking on lights throughout the night. Freed for lack of evidence, he complained bitterly of harassment. He'd been targeted, he said, solely because of his Asian ethnic heritage.

But he wasn't Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist whose arrest roiled Washington this year. He was Tsien Hsue-shen, US Air Force colonel and a pioneering jet-propulsion expert. Today he is alive and well - and living in Beijing as the most lionized military scientist Communist China has ever had.

Viewed from afar, the McCarthy-era case of Tsien Hsue-shen stands as an eerie precursor to the Wen Ho Lee storm. Yet neither Dr. Lee's proponents nor his prosecutors can draw easy lessons from this chapter in history.

To this day, public evidence that Dr. Tsien had communist leanings while in the US is, to put it charitably, thin. Co-workers defended him, as have many of Lee's. Some fought for years to clear Tsien's name.

But the fact remains that after a lengthy legal struggle Tsien gave up and was deported. He eventually became what the FBI suspected he already was: the father of China's ballistic-missile program. Thus if there is any conclusion for today to be drawn from the Tsien affair, it is perhaps that the greatest US security losses can be self-inflicted.

"It's a fascinating parallel to the Lee case," says Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Chapter 1: Missile wunderkind

Tsien Hsue-shen grew up in Hang-zhou, a provincial capital in east China, in the early years of the 20th century. A precocious student, he eventually won a scholarship to study engineering in the US, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

At Caltech in the 1930s, Tsien became a protégé of the renowned aeronautics professor Theodore Von Karman. He was part of the "Suicide Squad," a group of students whose experiments with rockets were dangerous enough to be banished to desert arroyos. Colleagues remember him as formal, a touch elegant, and fond of classical music (as is Wen Ho Lee).

Colleagues also remember Tsien as brilliant. Von Karman persuaded authorities to grant him a security clearance, though he remained a Chinese citizen. He developed into one of the most important rocket scientists in the US, a founding member of what is now NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Commissioned a colonel in the US Army Air Forces, he helped study Germany's V-2 ballistic-missile program after the war.

Meanwhile, Tsien's native land was riven by civil war. In 1949, as the Communists consolidated their victory over the Nationalists, Tsien decided it was finally time to become a US citizen. "What he had not counted on was that at this time the United States was entering a period of cold-war hysteria. Many scientists would be caught in its whirlwind," writes author Iris Chang in her biography of Tsien, "The Thread of the Silkworm."

Chapter 2: A knock on the door

On June 6, 1950, FBI agents paid Tsien a surprise visit. They charged that some grad-school parties he had attended decades ago were in fact meetings of Unit 122 of the Pasadena Communist Party. His security clearance was revoked. Never again would he work on a US military project.

Two weeks later, to the astonishment of his friends, he decided to return to China. Perhaps he really was a spy, fearful of discovery. Colleagues had a different interpretation, Ms. Chang writes. They saw the decision as a result of a mix of "pride, anger, confusion, and fear, all emotions consistent with the person Tsien had become."

Authorities searched Tsien's luggage. They found material they deemed suspicious, such as a scrapbook of clippings about US nuclear espionage and material they deemed classified (including Tsien's own papers).

Experts had widely varying opinions as to the value of the seized data - as they would decades later in the Lee case. Tsien was imprisoned, although briefly. An INS trial eventually found him guilty of being a Communist and subject to deportation. The key evidence against him: association with convicted Communists and testimony from two Los Angeles cops who said they had seen his name on a 1938 party membership list.

Five years of limbo followed. The US could deport Tsien, yet it didn't, presumably because officials felt he knew too much. FBI agents shadowed him and his family. Eventually the pressure became unbearable. In early 1955, he escaped FBI surveillance and did something that in hindsight appears suspicious: He scribbled a note intended for the People's Republic of China, asking for help leaving the US.

Tsien and his family were repatriated on Sept. 17, 1955. They sailed from Los Angeles aboard a passenger liner. Fellow travelers said they mostly kept to themselves.

Chapter 3: Spy or scapegoat?

Was Tsien a spy? Circumstantial evidence points in that direction. But much of the government's case against him might have been ripped apart by a tough defense lawyer. The membership list the cops talked about - could they produce it? Was it a list of active members, a list of target recruits, a reading list?

At American universities in the 1930s, it was hard to avoid attending parties with "reds." What about the influence of Tsien's wife - the daughter of a top Nationalist military strategist? How could Tsien be a Communist if he had lived in the United States since before Mao seized power?

McCarthy-era paranoia certainly played a part in Tsien's downfall. He was never charged with espionage, after all.

Many of Tsien's colleagues could not see a spy or even a party member in the self-absorbed scientist. Chang, his biographer, has said she believes the government's charges against him remain unproven.

When he returned to China, he was lionized by the new Communist government. Given all the resources at the state's disposal, he eventually created a Chinese jet-propulsion industry. His work led to the development of a wide range of native missiles. He lives today in quiet retirement. He refuses to speak to Westerners.

Recently, a congressional panel weighed in on whether Tsien was always a Communist Party member, or forced by expulsion to become one. Last year the Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China - known as the Cox Committee, after Chairman Christopher Cox (R) of California - included a section on Tsien in its report about China and presumed loss of current US secrets.

Tsien is the father of China's ballistic-missile force, noted the report. "The allegations that he was spying for the PRC are presumed to be true."

Chapter 4: Parallel universe

The Cox Committee report helped spread concern in Washington that the US was losing "crown jewel" military secrets to Chinese espionage. It concluded, among other things, that China had stolen design data on the most advanced US thermonuclear weapons.

It was against this background that the Wen Ho Lee case exploded into public view. Dr. Lee, a Taiwanese-born Los Alamos lab scientist, was a primary target of the federal probe into a leak of warhead secrets. Eventually he was charged only with mishandling classified data. A plea bargain freed him after nine months in solitary confinement.

Yet some contend that the Cox report exaggerated the danger of Chinese espionage and helped create an anti-Asian attitude in security circles. They point to what they feel is the study's cavalier treatment of the Tsien Hsue-shen case. "They had a story line, and they followed it," says Lewis Franklin, co-author of a critique of the Cox report by the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation.

The Cox report says spy allegations against Tsien are presumed to be true. Yet Tsien was never charged with spying, says Mr. Franklin. He was investigated primarily for Communist connections. And "presumed" by who? Why?

The Cox report says that Tsien "emigrated" to China, without mention of his long fight to avoid deportation. Cox report authors cite Chang's "Thread of the Silkworm" as the source of much of their information about Tsien's life. Chang has repeatedly complained that the committee drew unwarranted conclusions from her work.

Cox authors had a modern purpose in distorting this historical record, claims Franklin. "It seems to be primarily an attempt to show that the PRC has taken missile secrets from the United States over a 40-year period and to characterize its progress in missile development as mainly derived from espionage against the United States," says the Stanford critique.

Such critics are entitled to their opinion - but that opinion is wrong, according to Nicholas Rostow, staff director of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Critics do "not know all the classified details" of Tsien's case, wrote Rostow last year.

As for Lee, investigators have begun debriefing him. As part of his plea bargain with the government, he agreed to tell more about what happened to 17 computer tapes that contained downloaded nuclear data, some of it secret. Lee has filed a civil suit against the government claiming unfair prosecution, while Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has announced new DOE security rules intended to guard against racial profiling.

In his heyday, Tsien Hsue-shen was one of the most famous people in China, appearing on podiums with Mao, and today the Beijing leadership still occasionally calls on him to lend his prestige to their purposes. He recently issued a statement denouncing the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. So far, he has given no public indication of interest in the Wen Ho Lee case - something at least reminiscent of his long-ago past.