December 25, 1999
Espionage Ends Year of Living in the HeadlinesBy Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For such a clandestine business, espionage blew its cover this year in cases that revealed one of the world's oldest professions was very much alive with spies in hot pursuit of other countries' secrets.
The United States accused China of stealing its nuclear weapons secrets and Russia of bugging the U.S. center of diplomacy, the State Department, with a listening device.
Russia accused the United States of spying and expelled a U.S. diplomat identified as Cheri Leberknight, saying she was caught red-handed with an array of spy gadgets.
A former Australian government intelligence analyst, Jean-Philippe Wispelaere, was charged with trying to sell more than 700 classified U.S. defense documents to another country.
And a U.S. Naval petty officer, Daniel King, was charged with passing secrets to Russia in 1994 while in the Navy's espionage decoding unit based at the National Security Agency.
In Britain, 87-year-old great-grandmother Melita Norwood admitted to spying for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Intelligence experts say it is naive to believe that just because countries have working ties they do not spy on each other. Best of friends want to know what the other is up to.
"We have allies who spy on us for technological and commercial reasons. And we have countries who we cooperate with, Russia is one, on some very important issues like terrorism, but they still spy on us and we on them for other purposes," said former CIA Director James Woolsey. "That's just the nature of the world in its normal state."
The role of U.S. intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War shifted from focusing on one adversary, the Soviet Union, to ferreting out "terrorist" threats from many regions.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary William Cohen said U.S. spy agencies were working with counterparts worldwide to share intelligence to foil threats to Americans during the holidays.
The United States has warned Americans to be especially cautious, saying "terrorists" may be planning attacks.
"The events of this year including the current concerns about worldwide terrorism demonstrate how vital good intelligence is to U.S. national security," CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said.
While the CIA will not talk about its successes, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger this week said the United States had waged an aggressive campaign against Saudi-exile Osama bin Laden. "We have taken down a number of his cells around the world," Berger said.
The United States has blamed bin Laden for masterminding the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa last year that killed more than 220 people.
The biggest intelligence blunder of the year resulted in NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May.
The CIA picked a target believed to be a Yugoslav arms depot, but a series of mistakes involving outdated maps and databases resulted in the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, which U.S. officials called a huge mistake.
Lifting the veil of secrecy and making the CIA more accountable to the public took a step backward this year when a judge declared the intelligence budget could stay classified for 1999, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists project on government secrecy.
One consequence of the eruption of spy cases was a government flurry to tighten security as Congress and the public expressed shock that foreign spies were lurking about.
"One should not be surprised that the Chinese are trying to steal our nuclear secrets or the Russians are trying to steal things out of the State Department. They have very large espionage establishments in the United States," Woolsey said.
"For us to let people wander without appropriate escorts through the State Department or for us to permit a very high and unsupervised degree of openness at our national laboratories is as foolish as going out of town for a week and leaving your house unlocked," he said.
"The story here is not the Russians and the Chinese, they're doing what comes naturally ... spy against the United States," said Woolsey, now a law partner at Shea & Gardner. "The thing that's out of kilter is our own lack of security."
A congressional report in May accused China of stealing secrets on practically the whole U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, including the top-of-the-line miniaturized W-88 warhead.
That set off finger-pointing over who was responsible and stricter security measures were imposed on U.S. nuclear weapons labs. A nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, became publicly linked to suspicions of Chinese espionage after being fired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in March.
But when arrested this month he was charged not with spying but with downloading secret data onto unclassified computer disks. Lee pleaded not guilty and China denied taking secrets.
The State Department got unwanted publicity after a listening device was found in the woodwork of a conference room. Russian diplomat Stanislav Gusev was expelled after being caught allegedly monitoring it from outside the building.
U.S. officials said they became suspicious of the man who would drive a car with diplomatic plates around the State Department trying different parking spots for the best signal.
"It either says that they (Russians) are very clumsy," Woolsey said, or "a darker possibility is that they intended to be caught because something else is going on and they wanted to draw attention off what it is."
"Whenever a spy from a very highly sophisticated service such as the Russian service is that clumsy you start looking to see if there was something else going on," Woolsey said.
The Russians might even have been suspicious about why they were able to plant the bug, Paul Redmond, a former CIA officer, said. "I think it's entirely possible they found it so easy to do, that they didn't believe it and were probably wondering whether they were being set up," he said.
© Copyright 1999 Reuters