Is the 'China threat' real?
Geoff Metcalf interviews famed national-security reporter Bill Gertz

By Geoff Metcalf

One of the most respected investigative journalists in the nation, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz is so effective in reporting on national security and espionage matters that Congress recently attempted to make a new law to hamstring his efforts. Gertz's most recent book, bolstered by scores of government documents, exposes the current threat to the U.S. of the communist Chinese military and intelligence community.

Question: Before we get into the details of your book, "The China Threat," have you discovered things in your research since the publication of the book that you would like to have included?

Answer: I interviewed the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee a couple of weeks ago, Sen. Richard Shelby from Alabama. He was very critical of the CIA analytical division in charge of China. He said that they had a pervasive, benign view of China. Not only that, but he had taken steps to try to fix the problem by putting in some legislation in the classified portion of the Intelligence authorization bill that would require competitive analysis. This is something the CIA hates. They don't like anyone second-guessing their work. They love to work in the shadows where no one can challenge anything they say.

Here was this senator saying, your analysis is no good. We need a second opinion and I want you guys to do it. Interestingly enough, it was the second year in a row that he added the legislation. The first time was last year and it was basically ignored. To me, this really highlights the big problem in the government -- that China is not a threat.

Q: Shelby slaps them upside the head and the CIA ignored it? They didn't take any remedial steps to try to fix what he said was wrong?

A: Not exactly. What they did was basically nothing. For example, the CIA's idea of analytical competition or outside analysis was to call in a number of academic specialists. They gave them a one-day clearance at the "secret" level -- and that limited their ability to really see what was going on. For one day, they had a group of academics come in, only one or two of which had any intelligence experience. If you know anything about the intelligence business, it is a very specialized field. If you don't understand the processes and the way things are laid out -- and if you can't get access to the most sensitive data, the raw intelligence -- you are going to be working with finished products. And that's the problem: The finished product has been skewed to play down the China threat.

So that was their explanation for saying, "Well, yeah, we did competitive analysis, and they said no." We want a team of critics. We want people from outside the agency to come in and have complete access and really provide an honest second opinion about what kind of reports they are producing on China.

Q: Like the author of "Hegemon," Steven Mosher? Was he invited to come in?

A: No, in fact, he wasn't. There were a lot of pro-China academics and a few solid people -- Arthur Waldren, the University of Pennsylvania China specialist, for example, who's an excellent guy on this.

Q: Do you see anything changing here? This is something that needs to be fixed quickly.

A: I got the title for this book about two years ago when I was working on an article on the Chinese military for the Washington Times. I went over to the Pentagon and talked to some of their specialists there. They all try to play down Chinese military capability -- they say they have a junkyard army, that they can't do anything with this and that. But after the briefing, I always try to look at the facts and let them speak. In the middle of the briefing, a colonel came in and said, "The general would like to see you." I can't identify him by name because of the background rules, but I went to his office and I sat down across from him. He said, "You know Bill, China is not a threat." I asked him, "Why do you think that?" Basically, he said to me, "Because of their statements."

Q: Because of their statements? They have told us what they are going to do.

A: This was astounding, because the Pentagon is always the most skeptical and most hard-line when it comes to defense assessments. They always go by capabilities. If the Chinese have a small nuclear arsenal, there's always a chance they can use it. If they are building new nuclear weapons, there is always a chance they will use those nuclear weapons. So this was astounding -- and it showed to me how widespread this total notion of trying to play down China was.

You see this throughout the government, and that's why I picked up on the theme, "What is the China threat?" I put together what I think is a real clear examination of all of these issues: spying, technology acquisition, military modernization and -- the most dangerous issue -- Taiwan.

Q: What else would you have liked to include in "The China Threat" that you couldn't because you interviewed Shelby after the book was done?

A: Although it's not related to China, it certainly was an eye opener in terms of policy, and that was the Gore-Chernomyrdin secret agreement.

Q: I am flummoxed as to why the mainstream hasn't jumped on that like white on rice. It is beyond amazing the mainstream has chosen to ignore it.

A: One of the key features of my book "Betrayal" was the fact I kept getting intelligence reports showing that Russia was selling missile technology, conventional arms, all of this equipment to Iran, and nothing was being done. I could never figure out why there was this gap between the intelligence reports blowing the whistle loudly and the inaction on the part of the Clinton administration. This Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement was like a lightbulb. Basically, they had a secret deal between Al Gore and Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russian prime minister, signed in 1995. That agreement said, in effect, "We're going to look the other way on your arms sales if you agree to end them by the end of 1999."

Q: By the way, what was the name of that specific legislation they were violating?

A: It was the Iran-Iraq Non-proliferation Act. There were actually two acts.

Q: The two authors of the legislation were who?

A: Al Gore and John McCain.

Q: I just wanted to make sure we got that "Al Gore" in there.

A: Yeah (laughing). There was also another law that said you cannot send lethal assistance to any nation that sends lethal assistance to any nation on the terrorist list. It has to be sanctioned. That kind of got lost in the administration's shuffle on trying to explain away this deal. I'll bet you anything that there are similar secret agreements now between the Clinton administration and the Chinese. One of them I highlight in the book was the proposal to basically reward China for selling missiles and weapons of mass destruction around the world under the naive notion that, if we offer them this, maybe they'll go along and stop selling this weapons technology around the world.

Q: And maybe they won't. The mere fact that the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal was secret suggests it may not be a one-of-a-kind event. Have you had any luck snooping around?

A: No, but if I had uncovered something, it would be one of the first things I'd put in the newspaper. I am confident that when the Clinton administration hits the ash heap of history, somebody is going to defect from inside and we're going to find out that things were far worse than we suspected.

Q: What makes you so sure?

A: I know that for a fact. When I was doing a book signing at the Pentagon for "Betrayal," a military officer came up to me and said, "Bill, I was inside when all this was going on. ... I read your chapter on missile defense and you were right on target. But I can tell you that it was far worse than you had it." And he added, "I only hope that if a new administration gets in, they will go back and revisit these issues, because they shouldn't be left the way they are."

Q: When I was writing up the Jack Daly interview, I was so focused on an active-duty Navy officer accusing Strobe Talbot and others of treason that I missed something real significant he said. One month prior to the Kapitan Man incident that irreparably damaged his eyes from that Russian laser, there was a meeting of Al Gore and Viktor Chernomyrdin. The commission met just one month prior to Jack's injuries. Maybe it's just my cynicism, but it seems to indicate that the reason the Navy was reluctant to pursue that whole episode was because there may have been some kind of side deal cooking.

A: I am absolutely convinced that the meeting that occurred influenced the handling of the [Kapitan Man] incident. It was basically the reason they covered it up. They went to great lengths to make sure nothing was going to create ripples in their pro-Russia policy. This goes back to the famous Chicken Summit, which for me was one of the best stories I have ever done in my career. I got a hold of an internal memorandum of a conversation between Clinton and Yeltsin. This was in Egypt in '96. Both Clinton and Yeltsin were running for re-election and Clinton said to Boris, "Look, we're both running for re-election. Let's not do anything to upset relations between our countries. And oh, by the way, there is this one dispute we have with your country. You're blocking imports of American chicken -- and 40 percent of those chicken imports come from Arkansas."

Q: Isn't that special?

A: It really captured the crass political style of the president -- that he would be willing to use a major summit to go to bat for his political cronies in Arkansas. And the ban on chicken was lifted at the Gore-Chernomyrdin meeting that followed within a couple of weeks of that summit meeting.

Q: In cutting a deal with Chernomyrdin, Gore violated his fiduciary responsibility and probably violated a couple of laws on top of that. Can you see Congress coming back to revisit that issue?

A: They made a major run at it. Both the House and the Senate were very concerned about this.

Q: But Madeleine Albright effectively flipped them off.

A: There was a total stonewall! It was embarrassing to see the Republicans get rolled so easily on another serious national-security issue.

It kind of got lost in the election. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a meeting and tried to muster the votes for a subpoena but couldn't get enough votes in their committee to get this document.

Q: The secretary of state throws "the bird" to Congress and the Senate just smiles and takes it?

A: That's exactly what happened. The ironic part of this is the Washington Times published the key portions of these documents in the newspaper, yet the administration refused to provide them to Congress. Another thing about this was the administration claimed that this was not a secret agreement -- that they had told the public and that they had told Congress. Well, we just recently saw the Russian response to that.

Q: Which was rather telling. What did they do?

A: They withdrew from the agreement.

Q: Why?

A: Because they said their secret had become public.

Q: In "China Threat," you have over 50 pages of government documents -- a lot of them classified. Did you breathe a sigh of relief when what I called "The Gertz Act" didn't happen?

A: (laughing) It was very interesting. They were calling it the "Anti-Gertz Leak Statute." It was drafted primarily because of my reporting. The way I approach it is, I don't publish classified information. I report the news. That's what I have been doing, and I've been doing it for a long time. There are a lot of people in government who are upset about that. Governments are always upset about leaks. I didn't believe this when I started in the news business, but the press performs a vital function for national security. We're not the fourth branch of government but we can certainly shed light on things that are nefarious -- and have been covered up -- and that the American people should know about.

Q: You tell me you talked with a general who tells you China is not a threat, yet you publish an internal Chinese military document exposing how Beijing is willing to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. if or when we try to help Taiwan. I consider that a threat!

A: How can we explain that general's statement? I can speculate. One, he is trying to spin me. More likely is the fact the people who were briefing me before that meeting had provided him with incorrect information or had left information out. I am not a conspiratorial thinker but I can tell you there is, within the intelligence community, a very aggressive group of people that are specifically pro-China. They do not see China as a threat and they have a self-fulfilling prophecy. They think if we are nice to China that China will automatically become a normal nation and not the communist dictatorship that it is. It's pervasive. And this is the kind of thing that Sen. Shelby was trying to get at through this legislation. As I said, it failed last year. Who knows if it will succeed or not this year?

Q: Mao used to say, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Where are the Chinese pointing their gun?

A: The gun is pointed at the United States. Unquestionably, if you read Chinese military and Communist Party writings, they view the United States as their number one enemy. Not only do they view us that way, but they have an active strategy to try to undermine us around the world.

Q: Regarding vital intelligence, did the Clinton-Gore administration deliberately or accidently leak all the stuff they did to China?

A: I can tell you when it comes to proliferation, they (Clinton-Gore) have actually been complicit in providing intelligence information that has been damaging. The position going in for the administration is that China is a "normal" nation -- not a communist dictatorship -- so they are going to just try to have normal diplomatic relations. They don't understand that communists don't respond well to concessions. They just pocket them and demand more.

They would have meetings in Beijing -- I highlight one of them in the book -- they would go into these meetings and say, "Your company, Great Wall Industries, is selling missile technology to Pakistan. We want you to stop this. It's against your policy. It's against our policy." And the Chinese would say, "Oh, that's very interesting. What can you tell us about this? Can you provide us with more information?" So they provide more intelligence information and the next thing you know, the Chinese have changed the name of the company and have shut down the intelligence link.

Q: The guys we send over to negotiate with these people -- they are not dumb. They're not stupid people. These are supposed to be the best and the brightest. They don't get hoodwinked like that by accident.

A: They believe that China is a friend of the United States. That's their going-in position.

Q: Even when China has said if you mess with us we'll lob a nuke at L.A.?

A: Yes. They dismiss that as merely rhetoric, that they don't really mean it. I've had people tell me this in meetings. It's all part of this broad, strategic deception. I think this comes from Beijing itself. The Chinese have a strategy for dealing with the United States while they are building up their power. It's captured in a statement by Deng Xiao-Ping, the late communist leader, who said, "Bide our time. Build our capabilities." They are engaged in a long-term buildup. This is not a five- or six-year thing -- this is 10 to 20 years. They build up what they call their "national power" -- a combination of their military power, their economic power, their political and diplomatic power.

Q: Currently, in the intelligence community, how many people do we have keeping an eye on China, compared to how many were looking at the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War?

A: You'd be surprised. Take the Pentagon as an example. You would think the Pentagon would regard China as one of the key places since, in 1996, we almost had a conflict with them over Taiwan. We sent two aircraft carriers there. You would think that the number of people in the office of the secretary of defense in charge of China policy would be fairly large. No! There are three people. Three people in the office of the secretary of defense devoted full-time to China policy.

Q: Three people. Compare that to how many people may have been tasked to keep an eye on Russia.

A: There would be scores by contrast. In the intelligence community, since they have come under fire in recent years, they've started to build up their intelligence capabilities, specifically analysts. But there is a certain orthodoxy that is applied to any new hires.

Q: And that is?

A: Unless they ascribe to the "China is not a threat" theory, their career prospects are very limited.

Q: If their job is to analyze intelligence data, one of their functions is to determine what is and is not a threat, not to go in with a preconceived opinion and only collect data that supports that.

A: That would be the ideal, of course. But unfortunately, throughout the intelligence community at the top levels, those that have this benign view of China exercise a strict control over who is hired and who is fired. That's how they manage to maintain homogeneity on the "China is not a threat" theory.

Q: With all the quid pro quo stuff between the Clinton-Gore administration and the communist Chinese and the lame FBI investigation into campaign-finance irregularities, do you think the money that came to Clinton-Gore and the DNC was a bribe -- or was it a gratuity?

A: I have a chapter on this called "The Plan." I talked to [Sen.] Fred Thompson, and I think it was more of a gratuity -- in the sense that the Chinese influence plan was modeled, interestingly enough, on the similar kind of activities that were carried out by Taiwan in the '70s, '80s and early '90s. The Chinese saw this and they said, hey, we ought to be doing this, too. Fred Thompson from Tennessee, who investigated this, explained it to me as very similar to the way lobbyists for American companies and interests operate on Capitol Hill. They present money and they expect some return on it. But it may not be a specific return -- it may not be for a specific project or a specific policy. They just say, here's our money. We want you to do nice things. We want you to treat China as a non-threatening power. I think it worked fantastic. By any objective measure, the policies based on that influence have changed dramatically -- to the point where the administration has to explain how Chinese missiles became more reliable with U.S. technology in the 1990s.

Q: Early in November, I interviewed a very frustrated Notra Trulock. How bad were things in the Energy Department?

A: Notra is kind of one of the heroes of my book. He was really courageous in that he saw what was going on. He was alerted to it by some of the most expert nuclear-intelligence minds in our nuclear-weapons complex and he was instrumental in blowing the whistle on the fact that China had obtained, through espionage, secrets on every deployed nuclear warhead in our arsenal. I mean it was truly extraordinary.

Q: An obvious question is, what is Bill Richardson still doing there?

A: That's interesting. That was one of the things that came out since the book was published. I had a reference to it. Notra Trulock testified before the Senate committee and he was asked by Sen. Arlen Specter: Do you have any knowledge about how information about Wen Ho Lee was first disclosed to the press? He was under oath and he told the truth. He said yes, Bill Richardson revealed to the New York Times that Wen Ho Lee, or a Chinese-American scientist, was under investigation for espionage at Los Alamos. That was one of the key turning points in the FBI's case against Wen Ho Lee.

Q: And why, once that came out, didn't Richardson either resign or get fired?

A: He completely denied it. He issued a statement and basically "did a Clinton" on it, and that's where the matter stayed. [The Washington Times] ran a front-page story on it and that was about the only coverage on it. It's one of those things in Washington that never ceases to amaze me that these kinds of news events occur and yet nothing is reported outside of the Washington Times or your own WorldNetDaily.

Q: Do you anticipate a sea change in policy when George W. Bush becomes the next president?

A: Not a major change, based on what's been said during the campaign. I'm encouraged the governor will have a much tougher position on China. The Chinese government has come out in support of Al Gore since the election.

Q: Big time. So has Russia, by the way.

A: Yes. The Chinese view is they like Gore because they don't like Bush's position on two issues: national missile defense -- Bush wants to deploy one - and the issue of Taiwan. Bush has come out in support of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which is an effort by some conservatives that passed by a wide margin in the House, although it's been held up in the Senate. It basically says, 'wait a minute'. Our policy on Taiwan is way out of balance. It's shifted toward the mainland and it is very dangerous. Unless we take some steps to help Taiwan build up its military, this instability is going to increase.

Q: We've had an executive who's said: One China -- it's not really our business -- it's an internal problem for them. Congress has a completely different opinion. What's going to happen in the next four years?

A: The situation in the Taiwan Straight is getting more and more unstable. It's very similar to what happened in Korea and in the Gulf. Back in 1950, South Korea was inadvertently excluded from the defense perimeter and the North Koreans invaded. That triggered the Korean War. In 1990, our Ambassador to Baghdad mistakenly told Saddam Hussein: We're not interested in your border disputes with Kuwait. The next thing we knew, Iraqi tanks were in downtown Kuwait City and we had the Gulf War. The Clinton administration has had a policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. They have basically said, maybe we'll defend them and maybe we won't.