How Much Economic Espionage Is Too Much?

"If we spy for military security, why shouldn't we spy for economic security?"

Those were the words not of an aggressive Chinese spy but none other than Stansfield Turner, the Carter-era CIA director, who in 1992 argued that the United States should more aggressively carry out intelligence operations aimed at securing America's leading economic position in the world.

If it weren't for matters of patriotism, the former CIA director probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow at allegations of Chinese spying unveiled by a Pennsylvania grand jury and the Department of Justice on Monday.

Indeed, the tactics the Obama administration has accused China of using have also been debated at the highest levels of the U.S. government as possible instruments of American power. Other countries haven't been so gun shy and have carried out operations strikingly similar to those a Pennsylvania grand jury have accused Chinese spies of carrying out.

In the 1970s and 1980s, French agents planted moles inside IBM and Texas Instruments and forwarded the material they collected to a French computer company. Microphones planted in the seats of Air France to pick up talk among traveling businessmen have become a piece of intelligence lore.

The French, it seems, think Americans should feel flattered at the attention. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former French intelligence boss, once said."America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services."

But even if there is scant evidence of American companies spying on behalf of, say, General Motors, U.S. spies have certainly embraced the notion of economic espionage that Robert Gates,  then the director of the CIA, laid out in the early 1990s. In 1995, for example, the New York Times revealed that U.S. agents aggressively spied on Japanese officials engaged in trade negotiations with the United States.

More recently, documents released by Edward Snowden showed that U.S. agents spied on the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. Other documents revealed that U.S. and British spies targeted the European Union official responsible for competition policy and sensitive anti-trust cases. And according to the New York Times, the NSA targeted servers belonging to the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in a purported effort to determine the company's links with the Chinese army.

This turn toward espionage and companies and strategic industries is of a part with the changes visited upon the American intelligence community following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the CIA went through something of an existential crisis. With its main adversary now defeated, what would be the purpose of the agency and against whom would it fight? In the go-go days of the early 1990s, before the emergence of a new terrorist threat, the agency alighted upon economic competitors as its new focus.

In 1992 Gates, observed the "increased importance of international economic affairs as an intelligence issue." The agency had been forced to adjust accordingly. "Nearly 40 percent of the new requirements are economic in nature," Gates said. "The most senior policymakers of the government clearly see that many of the most important challenges and opportunities through and beyond the end of this decade are in the international economic arena."

But the agency, he emphasized, would not engage in commercial spying -- that is, passing on helpful information to U.S. companies. A 2007 CIA paper documented the tortured debate over whether the United States should spy on behalf of its corporations. The problems, the paper concludes, are myriad and a decision to engage in corporate espionage could spur international conflict. Moreover, the paper argues, the benefits of corporate espionage are difficult to calculate and impossible to evaluate against the costs.

The Chinese, like the French, have made a different calculation.



North Korea’s Pro-Wrestling Propaganda Machine

It seems like it was just yesterday that self-described "basketball diplomat" Dennis Rodman was in Pyongyang shooting hoops and inciting international outrage. Such was the backlash against his recent trip that he's since vowed never to visit North Korea again -- but the DPRK isn't ready to abandon its lofty hopes for sports diplomacy.

Later this year, Pyongyang will host an international pro-wrestling event bringing together American, Japanese, and other wrestlers, in the spirit of "independence, peace, and friendship," according to the Wall Street Journal. The exact date and line-up of wrestlers haven't been finalized yet, but if it's anything like its 1995 predecessor -- a massive, meticulously choreographed event titled "Collision in Korea" -- it will be a spectacular display of political propaganda.

The 1995 competition consisted of eight matches over two days and featured wrestlers from the United States and Japan. The event included the American superstar Ric Flair, who fought Japanese heavyweight Antonio Inoki, who had also helped to organize the bouts. Before the competition kicked off, co-organizer Kazuo Ishikawa told reporters that "Collision in Korea" was "wrestling diplomacy at its best."

The television broadcast of the event is like an acid trip into the dark heart of the 1990s:

While Rodman called Kim Jong Un his "best friend" during his visit to North Korea, the Americans wrestlers who participated in "Collision in Korea" were not quite so charmed by the hermit kingdom. Flair wrote about the rather unsettling experience in his 2010 memoir, To Be the Man:

"The second we arrived in Pyongyang, our passports were confiscated. Then each of us was assigned a ‘cultural attache' to follow us everywhere; these guys even sat in the dressing room while we went over our matches. In the dining room where the wrestlers ate, there was a camera in each corner, monitoring every movement. When Scott Norton called his wife and said, ‘This place sucks,' his phone line suddenly went dead."

Flair writes that he was awed by the turnout at the stadium -- 190,000 people showed up on the second day -- but nevertheless found it "creepy."

"The spectators cheered on cue," he wrote. "I almost got the feeling that they had been ordered to attend."

Muhammad Ali had come along to watch the event, but when it was over, he and Flair were made to stay an additional three days, "being dragged from place to place to meet with different Communist officials," according to Flair. During a dinner with various North Korean officials, Flair recalls Ali muttering, "No wonder we hate these motherfuckers."

In January, Flair recalled the trip during an interview with USA Today. "The thing that really disturbed me the most was that they wanted me to make a public statement that after my time in North Korea, I saw that they could dominate the United States of America if they wanted to," he said. "I can't remember how I angled my way around that one but I did not say that. I just said that I was thrilled and honored to be there and appreciated their hospitality."

But the 1995 event wasn't North Korea's first experiment in co-opting pro-wrestling for political purposes. The first such case involved Rikidozan, the founder of professional wrestling in Japan. Rikidozan was born in North Korea, but grew up in Japan where he became a successful sumo wrestler. In the 1950s, he went to the United States and trained as a professional wrestler. For much of Rikidozan's adult life, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung tried to lure him back to North Korea with promises of fame and fortune, but to no avail. When the wrestler died suddenly of peritonitis, "North Korea repossessed the fighter with the 1989 biography I Am a Korean, which became required reading for a generation of North Korean citizens," the journalist Adam Johnson writes in an article about North Korea's obsession with the late wrestler. Kim also built a tomb for Rikidozan, despite the fact that he was actually buried in Japan.

Antonio Inoki's role in these later wrestling events isn't coincidental. Inoki was one of Rikidozan's most famous proteges and when he visited North Korea in 1995 for "Collision," he was invited to pay homage to Rikidozan -- now a national hero -- by laying a wreath on his empty tomb.* Inoki took the bait, and has since become something of an informal ambassador for North Korea, putting his celebrity to work for the nation. During the 1995 wrestling event, for example, Flair was paid to let Inoki win, a proxy victory for North Korea.

Inoki is organizing this year's event, too, so it's safe to say that, while the line-up hasn't been finalized, the winners will be pre-determined.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Kim Il Sung had in 1995 invited Antonio Inoki to pay homage to Rikidozan. Kim died in 1994.

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