He is Lt. Cmdr. Edward C. Lin, who served in the Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, which employs aircraft using highly sensitive technology to track and detect enemy submarines. Presumably, knowing the methods and technical specifications of U.S. Navy submarine detection would enable Chinese vessels to avoid interception by U.S. forces.
China has major ambitions to become not just a regional, but a world power. One of the keys to this is developing its navy to enable it project force and influence far outside the Chinese mainland. In the past few years, the budding sea power has retrofitted a former Russian aircraft carrier. China has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world with five nuclear-powered boats and four equipped to carry ballistic missiles. The Nuclear Threat Initiative website says:
“Despite its already impressive size, it is also considered one of the fastest growing and modernizing submarine forces in the world, with the ONI [Office of Naval Intelligence] estimating that the submarine force will eventually expand to include 75 vessels. Other reports indicate that China’s submarine fleet totals up to 70 boats, with plans to add 20 more within the next 10 years.
This growth reflects a response to the rapidly changing security situation in and around China. Whereas China previously concerned itself primarily with coastal defense against its immediate neighbors,…it has in the last decade begun rapid expansion and modernization of its Naval forces, including its submarine force, to support the increasing blue-water requirements of its Navy as part of the larger regional and international role China is assuming.”
There has also been increasing confrontation between China and its neighbors regarding territorials claims to islands in the South China Sea. A number of those neighbors are U.S. allies and this has drawn us into the conflict. U.S. naval forces have established a presence in the area to remind Beijing that its claims are not uncontested.
With the rise of the Chinese economic juggernaut (recently slowed somewhat due to the global economic downturn), the U.S. and China have become competitors in many spheres, both economic, financial and military. Further, along with Israel and Russia, China is one of the most active parties in spying on U.S. targets. Chinese hackers, thought to be employed by the military, have engaged in widespread theft of U.S. commercial and military secrets as well.
All this would make a Taiwanese-American senior naval officer like Lin a prize target of Chinese intelligence. Lin was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 14, knowing only a single English word.
In 2008, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen at a ceremony which the military promoted as an example of embracing the broad diversity of the American immigrant culture:
“I always dreamt about coming to America, the ‘promised land,’” he [Lin] said. “I grew up believing that all the roads in America lead to Disneyland.”
…The motivation for someone to go through the naturalization process is unique for everyone.
“Whether it is economical, political, social or religious reasons,” Lin said. “I do know that by becoming a citizen of the United States of America, you did it to better your life and the life of your family.”
“You have recognized that not only do citizens have rights, but citizens also have responsibilities. The responsibility you are performing even now as non-U.S. citizen,” Lin said, according to the Navy account. “Extraordinary events made this nation and our military. People like you, men and women who stepped forward when their nation needed them accomplished these extraordinary events. I thank you for your decision to serve.”
The most disturbing aspect of this case, aside from whatever damage Lin might’ve done to U.S. naval forces, is the secrecy with which the Navy has handled his case. It arrested him in secret eight months ago. Since then, he has been imprisoned in the U.S. Navy stockade at Newport News, Virginia. For that entire period the American public knew nothing about this case for reasons no one has satisfactorily explained.
When asked, a Navy spokesperson claimed his name was withheld the protect his privacy. Military lawyers I’ve consulted consider this an especially dubious explanation. In fact, I’ve never known a prosecutor to be especially solicitous of the privacy rights of an accused. And it is almost never in the interest of a suspect to be held in secret, as my reporting on similar cases involving Israeli national security matters has shown.
In fact, Lin’s treatment is much more reminiscent of the manner in which the Israeli security apparatus handles espionage cases. In a number of high-profile cases, Israeli suspects like Marcus Klingberg, Ben Zygier, and a former Mossad official nicknamed Prisoner X2, have been arrested, tried, and imprisoned for decades without any official recognition that a crime has been committed. Everything done in absolute secrecy. Has the U.S. now adopted Israeli standards of opacity and unaccountability in such cases?
These same attorneys and national security experts I’ve questioned could think of no previous case under federal or military law in which a suspect was detained this long in total secrecy. One of these sources noted the only similar case he could think of involved the Canadian military.
The Obama administration has been the most aggressive in memory in prosecuting military-intelligence whistleblowers like Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and Shamai Leibowitz (a case in which I was intimately involved). In doing so, it’s violated numerous constitutional protections regarding press freedom.
The president seems to have given the Navy in this case free rein to jettison other constitutional protections like a suspect’s right to a speedy trial. And the American public has been deprived of critical information regarding this case. It merely continues the draconian approach of this administration toward both whistleblowers and constitutional safeguards formerly held sacrosanct.
It’s important to remember the government has, in the past, targeted a number of Chinese-American citizens, charging them with spying for China. In the case of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist’s life and career was ruined, and it took many years before his name was finally cleared. In an even more egregious case, meteorologist Sherry Chen was accused of passing climate-related documents to Chinese officials. She too was cleared of all charges.
Though we have no way of knowing the validity of the charges and evidence against Lin, it’s important to remember that in the zeal to ferret out spies and protect U.S. interests from an active, hostile nation, we have been known to overreach. When we do, personal lives are damaged or destroyed. For that reason, it’s important that this investigation be carried out in the clear light of day, something that has not happened until now.
One of the charges against Lin is especially ridiculous. He’s been accused of frequenting a prostitute and engaging in adultery because he is married. These seem tacked almost gratuitously as an insurance policy. If the case comes crashing down as it did against Wen Ho Lee, at least they’ll be able to drum Lin out of the service based on a charge of moral turpitude. Since when are military officers purer than civilians when it comes to sexual behavior? Since when should they be?
Remember as well, that Gen. David Petraeus faced no charges whatsoever for carrying on an adulterous affair with a former aide and biographer, with whom he shared top-secret documents (for that he pled guilty to a misdemeanor). This is typical of double standard enjoyed by the élite officers and denied the lower ranks, especially those from “suspect” ethnic groups like the Chinese community.
This article first appeared at Tikun Olam תיקון עולם