The closing lines of Tod Hoffman’s prologue to The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China’s Penetration of the CIA tell the reader that his latest book “is a ghost story.” While labelling the book as such might seem odd, in reality it’s quite appropriate – Hoffman demonstrates that in the world of espionage, answers are never completely clear, people are never who they seem to be, and it’s difficult to discover anything that doesn’t disguise itself or disappear altogether. Hoffman, a McGill graduate and an eight-year counter-intelligence veteran at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), provides remarkable insight into the world of espionage, intelligence, counter-intelligence, – including double and even triple agents – who apparently do actually exist outside the realm of James Bond.
The Spy Within chronicles the story of Larry Chin, a top Chinese linguist working for the CIA who was responsible for the longest running penetration of an intelligence organization ever uncovered. Chin spent 33 years selling information to the People’s Republic of China, a period of time that spanned the Korean War, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Vietnam War, and President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972. Thirty-three years of undetected espionage is unheard of in itself – but the fact that it was conducted during such a critical juncture in U.S.-China relations and Chinese history is almost unbelievable. These were the formative years of an important but troubled relationship between two great powers, and Larry Chin had a hand in it all: some of his information actually passed directly to Chairman Mao. Hoffman excels in painting an insightful picture of Chinese culture and history, the roots of which shaped their spies and their methods of gathering intelligence.
The book begins with the launch of an FBI investigation into a suspected spy within the American intelligence community. This spy had been identified by a high-ranking source in China’s Ministry of Public Security called the PLANESMAN. The PLANESMAN was for the United States what Larry Chin was for China (lesson #1 of being a spy: trust no one).
Passages describing the investigation sometimes flash back more than 50 years to discuss how a young Larry Chin was recruited specifically to infiltrate the United States. As a university student during the Cultural Revolution, Chin was desperately looking to find a place in Mao’s “new” China. So, when he was encouraged by a Communist security officer to apply for an entry-level position at the American consulate in Shanghai, he jumped at the opportunity. He was hired, and at that moment his career in espionage began. He moved up the ranks, eventually securing a position with the CIA and becoming an American citizen.
Investing, as the Chinese government did, in a process that could potentially take decades to yield valuable results is very different from the American approach to espionage. According to Paul Redmond, the onetime head of counter-intelligence for the CIA who was interviewed by Hoffman, “the Chinese do not think in terms of hours, days, or weeks, but in terms of decades. They are an ancient civilization. They are able to deal with the intricacies of long-term planning.”
Hoffman is a skilled writer and definitely succeeds in producing a page-turner. It is written much like a screenplay, with a lot of attention paid to describing characters, their thoughts, and their surroundings. He lets you live inside the mind of a Chinese spy, an American traitor, or a stressed and sleep-deprived FBI agent. Hoffman allows you to experience the isolation, the fear, the adrenaline, the disappointment, and the huge responsibility weighing on the shoulders of all of his characters. This book was born to be made into a great spy thriller movie – and with a killer last line, Hoffman even leaves room for a sequel.
Spy Within: Larry Chin and China’s Penetration of the CIA is available for $26.95 from Steerforth Press.