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The Defense Intelligence Agency inaccurately claimed that Tsien Hsue-shen provided China with Titan missile technology to use for development of China's first ICBM, the CSS-4. (credit: Armsky.com)

Is a secret a lie if it just isn’t true?

Last week I wrote about Tsien Hsue-shen (also translated as Qian Xuesen), the brilliant Chinese scientist who was trained in the United States and then in 1950 was accused of being a communist and later a spy (see “A dragon in winter”, The Space Review, January 14, 2008). Tsien was placed under virtual house arrest and then deported in 1955. He later became a senior military and political leader in China and is considered by the Chinese to be the father of their missile and space program, although he probably stopped contributing to it by the 1970s or even earlier. If Tsien was not a communist when he was in the United States, he certainly became one after being accused, arrested, and deported to China by the United States government.

It had not been my intention to write about Tsien, but I was prompted both by an Aviation Week cover story that named him their 2007 “person of the year,” and another writer’s repetition of scurrilous nine-year-old claims made in a congressional report. One of the issues that I addressed was the difficulty of tracing responsibility for these claims. In response to that article I received some interesting feedback that I would like to share.

Tsien is a difficult subject for a number of reasons. Part of his life is recorded in China, part in the United States. And in both countries secrecy and propaganda distort his story. But a major problem has been the sloppiness and intellectual laziness of some people who have written about him.

Tsien is a difficult subject for a number of reasons, but a major problem has been the sloppiness and intellectual laziness of some people who have written about him.

To recap part of the story: in January 1999 the U.S. House of Representatives produced a report officially titled U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns With the People’s Republic of China, but more popularly known as the Cox Report after its chairman, Representative Christopher Cox of California (now in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission). The Cox Report made two claims about Tsien, one unproven, and the other demonstrably false. The report charged that Tsien was a spy for China, and also that he provided that country with secrets concerning the Titan ICBM program.

As various people pointed out in 1999, this latter charge was impossible, because Tsien’s security clearance was revoked in 1950 and he was deported in September 1955, but work on the Titan missile did not start until October 1955. Tsien was gone before there even was a Titan program. The other charge, that Tsien engaged in espionage in the United States, was never proven in the 1950s, and no evidence has ever emerged since then to support it.

The Cox Report includes extensive footnotes. Extensive footnoting often presents the impression of meticulous attention to detail and accuracy. But that is not always the case. This was ultimately a tactical error on the authors’ part, because it allowed outsiders to check their sources and determine that the Cox Report authors had misused them.

The report makes the Titan missile claim multiple times, and the espionage claim only once. The two most relevant paragraphs in the report appear in chapter 4 on page 178. They are reprinted here (changing only the spelling of Tsien’s name) replacing the footnotes with the cited sources in boldfaced type:

Based on his work at Cal Tech, Tsien was recruited to join the U.S. Army Air Force in the development of its long-range missile programs. [Department of Defense briefing to Select Committee, December 11, 1998.] Commissioned a Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force [Thread of the Silkworm, Iris Chang, Basic Books, 1995.] he eventually began working on the Titan intercontinental ballistic missile. [Department of Defense briefing to Select Committee, December 11, 1998.]

During the 1950s, allegations arose that Tsien was spying for the PRC. [Department of Defense briefing to Select Committee, December 11, 1998.] He lost his security clearances and was removed from work on U.S. ballistic missiles. [Thread of the Silkworm, Iris Chang, Basic Books, 1995.] The allegations that he was spying for the PRC are presumed to be true.

The Tsien espionage charge was not simply a footnote for the Cox Report. It was one of the pillars used to support the claim both that China has a long history of espionage in the United States, and that China borrows technology from other countries to enhance its weapons systems. So what the report claims about Tsien fifty years ago is not merely of academic interest, but cuts to one of its foundational arguments.

As I noted last week, several years ago I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for a copy of the “Department of Defense briefing to Select Committee, December 11, 1998” that I assumed was conducted by the DIA. The DIA replied that it had no records of such a briefing. This was inaccurate; they did have such records.

The DIA-Titan link

Last week, after reading my article, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) contacted me. Aftergood runs the Project on Government Secrecy for the FAS and regularly writes the excellent newsletter Secrecy News. In May 1999 he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense that was forwarded to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Three years later the DIA released a six-page set of briefing charts that it used to brief the Cox Committee in December 1998.

One possible origin for this Titan-China link is that the Titan 2 and the first Chinese ICBM, the CSS-4, utilized similar propellants. But the problem with this linkage is that the propellants for the Titan 2 were not developed until after Tsien had left the United States.

The briefing charts confirm that the DIA claimed that Tsien provided information on the Titan missile to the committee. The lead slide, titled “The China Connection,” declares, “China acquired Titan technology through expertise of Chinese who worked on Titan program and immigrated to PRC.” The next slide, titled “Qian Xuesen – Father of Chinese Missile Force,” states that Tsien [Qian] “worked on Titan program in 1950s,” and “started Chinese missile program in 1955.”

One possible origin for this Titan-China link is that the Titan 2 and the first Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile, the CSS-4, utilized similar propellants. But the problem with this linkage is that the propellants for the Titan 2 were not developed until after Tsien had left the United States. More importantly, the CSS-4 did not enter development until 1965 and did not enter operation until 1981, and as the DIA charts indicate, the CSS-4 apparently utilized Soviet rocket engines and therefore would have used Soviet-developed propellants.

The declassified briefing charts, courtesy of Mr. Aftergood, are here.

Note that these briefing charts merely state—incorrectly—that Tsien worked on the Titan missile program and then provided that expertise to the People’s Republic of China. But at no point do the briefing charts state that Tsien was “alleged to have spied for the PRC,” or that he had spied for the PRC, even though the Cox Report cited this DIA briefing as one source for allegations that Tsien was a spy. That subject undoubtedly came up during the classified briefing, but it is not in the written record.

Because there is no support for the allegations of spying in the DIA document, the Cox Report’s intellectually sloppy statement that “The allegations that he was spying for the PRC are presumed to be true” cannot simply be blamed on the DIA. The DIA was wrong about its claims concerning Tsien and the Titan missile, but we can only conclude that it was the authors of the Cox Report who “presumed” that Tsien was indeed a spy.

However, the DIA’s briefing charts are in some ways more disturbing than the conclusion that all the errors were made by the Cox Report authors. The Cox Committee was ideologically driven. They had an agenda—prove that China engaged in espionage—and they sought facts that supported their agenda (something that is not unheard of in Washington). And when facts were lacking or disagreed with them, they invented or distorted them. That’s understandable. Reprehensible, but understandable.

But the Defense Intelligence Agency is supposed to be objective, and yet this error concerning Tsien’s connection to the Titan looks like the DIA was also willing to invent or distort facts to support a conclusion. Now maybe in this case they were trying to be objective and merely ended up making a mistake. After all, bureaucracies are made up of humans and humans are fallible. But it is hard to grant the DIA the benefit of the doubt when their distorted facts so conveniently meshed with the committee’s distorted facts. The Cox Committee was engaged in a witch hunt, and the DIA provided kindling to help burn any witches.

Iris Chang

The Cox Report also cited historian Iris Chang’s excellent 1995 biography of Tsien. It was equally sloppy with her work as it was with the DIA briefing. For instance, the next paragraph in the Cox Report following the two reprinted above ended with the statement that “There were additional allegations that Tsien attempted to ship classified documents to the PRC before he left in 1955.” The report cited Chang for this information, neglecting to note that Chang also reported that these “allegations” were false. That’s like a sleazy prosecutor telling a jury that the accused was previously charged with a crime, but leaving out the fact that he was exonerated. It was distortions like this that annoyed Chang and prompted her to speak out about the report.

The Defense Intelligence Agency is supposed to be objective, and yet this error concerning Tsien’s connection to the Titan looks like the DIA was also willing to invent or distort facts to support a conclusion.

Aftergood wrote about the Tsien issue back in June 1999. He stated that he contacted Ms. Chang about the report after its release. She told him that she had contacted the committee to inquire “if there was any new evidence that had emerged” to support the allegations against Tsien. Chang told Aftergood that “they said that anything that wasn’t in the footnote section of the report was probably classified and therefore I would have to take their word for it that the report was true.”

It is common in Washington national security politics to claim that there is information to support a decision, but that it is secret and cannot be released due to national security concerns. This claim is often true—there may be secret evidence to support a decision. But as we have learned many times (most notably with regards to the justification for invading Iraq), just because information is secret, that does not mean that it is true. We have also learned that secrecy makes it harder to evaluate the accuracy of the information—even for those who have access to that information. The Cox Report demonstrates that when decision makers use public information dishonestly and incompetently, we can also expect them to use secret information dishonestly and incompetently.

Chang’s comments in 1999 demonstrate one of her great scholarly attributes—a willingness to go where the evidence took her and not become committed to a story that was contradicted by new evidence. She never claimed that Tsien was not a communist or a spy. She simply stated that there was no evidence in 1950 to support either conclusion, there never emerged any such evidence in the five decades since, and there was substantial reason to disbelieve the original charges. If the Defense Intelligence Agency had acquired such evidence, it could clarify the matter. But as the DIA briefing charts attest, there is no new evidence.

The world needs more scholars like Iris Chang, but with her passing in 2004 we have one less. As I reported last week, there is a new book on Chang’s life by her friend Paula Kamen, Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind. After I wrote that, I was contacted by Chang’s parents who wanted to inform me that they disagree with many of Kamen’s claims about their daughter, particularly her mental health before her suicide. They directed me to an interview conducted with Kamen by New American Media, and their own response in the comments section where they state in part “We had serious doubts that Iris had bipolar disorder as mentioned in Paula's book. The diagnosis of the last doctor of Iris was premature because Iris died a week after the diagnosis and there was no time to confirm it. There are so many facts about Iris which Paula did not know.”

That is a fair critique. Clearly something was wrong with Iris Chang’s mental state that drove her to commit suicide. But it is difficult for doctors to diagnose these things, and now it is probably impossible to know what pushed her to take her own life. Was she consumed by her passion for human rights and deeply disturbed by her research on the Japanese occupation of Nanking during World War 2? Did something in her life trigger a preexisting condition? Or did she suffer a lifelong struggle with mental illness? Answering those kinds of questions is extremely difficult, and very painful to friends and family members. And whereas the passage of time can allow the emotions of those involved to fade, it can also take memory away as well, making the biographer’s task difficult in other ways. Paula Kamen undoubtedly wrote an incomplete biography of her friend, and some people certainly wish that she had never written it, or at least waited longer before writing it. But it is probably not possible to write a perfect biography about anyone, especially so tragic a story.

Sometimes even the passage of decades does not heal the old wounds, or help us to understand.

Another commenter on the New American Media site questions Kamen’s thoroughness and attention to detail, and contrasts her to Chang. Other comments also question Kamen’s motivations for writing her biography of Chang, accusing her of opportunism, or trying to trash Iris Chang’s reputation out of jealousy of her friend. These charges could be true, false, fair or unfair (although in my opinion, it is unfair to question Kamen’s motivations—she seemed to be devoted to her friend and tried to understand her—but her techniques are fair game).

Chang’s parents have indicated that they intend to write a book about Iris, and that is a welcome development. Clearly this is an emotionally-charged issue, especially coming so soon after Chang’s death.

But as we have learned from the Tsien example, sometimes even the passage of decades does not heal the old wounds, or help us to understand.

The author wishes to thank Steven Aftergood and Iris Chang’s parents for their assistance.


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