The Quantum Spy – David Ignatius


Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to tell you about “The Quantum Spy” from David Ignatius, the well known Washington Post Associate Editor and International affairs columnist but also the master of the intelligence novel as the John Le Carré of the CIA. DI was also an adjunct professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy in the field of International affairs, providing another useful dimension to his story telling. He gives unparalleled credibility to his novels, five of which have been famous including initially “Agents of Innocence” (which got plaudits from the CIA itself) and “Body of Lies” (which was made into a great movie with Leonardo di Caprio and Russel Crow) but also “Bloodmoney”, “The Increment” and “The Director” all with a central focus on the CIA involving Jordan, Pakistan, Iran and finally Langley itself.  He also published a very good book about an exchange between Brent Scowcroft and the late Zbignew Brzezinski, then two veterans from the opposite sides of the “aisle” though non-partisan and level-headed foreign policy experts, which makes us regret another time in American history. While some have seen him as an apologist for the CIA, I have always enjoyed the quality of his craft and the precision of his story telling that always produces an amazing mix of fiction and reality very much along the lines John Le Carré did for British Intelligence and probably far more accurately given his connections.  

The Quantum Spy is about the new frontier of spying which is not cyber warfare even if we read a lot about it, only last December with the alleged cyber attacks by China on various US entities like the Navy or stories about persistent hacks of the EU Commission over recent years, not to mention the saga of Russian hacks and fake news dissemination at times of key electoral contests in the West. The Quantum Spy is focused on Artificial Intelligence or AI and quantum computing and its staggering leapfrogging developments which as always can be used for good and less good matters depending on where one stands. DI is very good at crafting the best stories taking into focus the latest genre and protagonists be they Al Qaeda, ISIS, Iran and its nuclear power quest or cyber security. Incidentally, Fredrick Forsyth, a veteran, now 80 years old, spy and international intrigue novelist (“The Day of the Jackal”, “The Dogs of War”, “The Fourth Protocol”, “The Negotiator”) just released “The Fox” with a novel plot that goes beyond sheer technology and focuses on the intersection of the mind and cyber warfare.    

The Quantum Spy starts when the CIA Deputy Director for Operations visits a tech entrepreneur who was just approached by a VC platform it turned out owned by Chinese interests to purchase his company. The entrepreneur, being a patriot and having a relative working at the CIA, decides to have a chat with Langley to see how he could “contribute”, which will happen very fast, given that quantum computing is the area the CIA also focuses on. We then go into Singapore and take part in a “convincing” session between Harris Chang, a Chinese-American agency man and his target, Dr. Ma Yubo, who is a scientist working for the Ministry of State Security, China’s main intelligence service, in the area of quantum computing. The scientist happens to know there is a mole in Langley who wants “to work on world peace” by helping China through Project “Xie” (“scorpion” – a little over the top maybe) to steal America’s edge in quantum computing so the world can share science. The crux of the story of course is to identify the mole in a backdrop of the “overseas Chinese”, as called by mainland Chinese for the Chinese Americans working for the US and all the more for the CIA (actually seen as traitors if not turned), who might naturally be subjected to ancestral calls of duty. The list of 35 suspects narrows down to five, including two Chinese Americans. We then embark on a journey into a little-known world of scientists who work, knowingly or not, for US national security with many projects being funded in the government’s hope that one will break through and “go black”when tech companies that joined the “program” leave campus to relocate on airtight intelligence compounds. Upon reaching that milestone formerly independent tech companies then find themselves in an SCIF or “Secure Compartmented Information Facility” now with only one client, their perimeter surrounded by fences and guards at the entrance. And when foreign employees have to leave as they would get no security clearance, making the CEO of that quantum computing research company lament (in a possible wink from DI) that it creates a hiring problem as “we don’t have enough smart Americans” on offer. As an added benefit for the likes of me and my 19th century skillset, readers, who will feel they are on a tour of Q’s office in the James Bond movies, get a friendly basic tutorial of the Idiot’s Guide type on “universal problem-solving” quantum computing and its Qbits, how they should ideally separate and really “cold” that world is at 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Incidentally in an uncanny reality joins fiction development, IBM just released the first standalone quantum computer, IBM Q System One, which is not for sale and will actually work on a capabilities’ rental basis for now.  

The “enemy” unlike most of the intelligence novels of the Cold War and the last 15 years is not Russia (I felt happy for my good Russian friends) but for a change China, which is quite topical given the news and US foreign policy approach at large, if only on trade. As an aside, China has been rapidly on the rise, putting aside temporary growing economic pains, and indeed wishes to secure a world leadership role which I see as a natural move if I were the Chinese leadership, putting aside our different conceptions of democracy and political governance however important they may be. In some ways, the Trump administration is right in making sure China is not left unchecked when and if accessing (not to say stealing) intellectual property or taking advantages of WTO rules and other similar market features on trade (*). However, that China spies on other countries to advance its interests is no news and is actually what all countries, especially major powers, do even like the U.S. via the NSA on its own allies as documented under the Obama Administration. That is not to say that the US and the West should not take counter-measures, which the former in particular should do in conjunction with its Western allies instead of antagonising them, also on trade matters. Personally I am more in favour of engaging with China and working with China on trade and other matters with the objective of anchoring them in a multi-dependant world where all parties benefit even if at times in different areas. This approach is sounder than the actual and inimitable Trump style of launching trade wars where nobody wins (as the soybean producers and their employees in the Midwest, many of whom supported a more assertive and “America First” Trump style and policies, would now attest). Once again it does not mean that the West should not react in cases of spying as in the case of cyber attacks against the EU which would have gone on for years. Engagement with China should not preclude firm stances when the line is crossed so all parties’ focus should be on win-win and mutual benefits and growth.  

     The Quantum Spy is also a look into the Chinese intelligence apparatus which is far less well known by readers than their equivalent in Russia with the old KGB and more recent FSB and SVR. We see the surprising rivalries between services epitomised with the fight between the Ministry of State Security, which would be the equivalent of an MI6, and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army)’s various units known by a number such as 2PLA in the book.  The services are vying for intelligence leadership and control with 2PLA naturally carrying the ideological party torch while the MSS would be a hotbed of corruption and laxity also generated by too much proximity to the West over the years in their work. The MSS-PLA feud is also a reflection of Shanghai, where MSS staffers usually come from, vs. the rest divide and a rejection of the internationalist elite in a strange “déjà vu” for us Westerners. Incidentally Ma Jian, the vice head of the MSS and counter-intelligence who was arrested for corruption in 2015 in one of the PLA-driven periodic purges was condemned on 27th December for life in jail as he would have received illicitly EUR 14 m equivalent from Guo Wengui, one of the Chinese billionaires and regime critics now asking for political asylum in the US. This is another example of the campaign by Xi-Jinping to eradicate corruption since its leadership started in 2012, resulting one can read in a staggering number of 1.5 million sanctions of party and related officials to date. As China is involved, you can expect a few mentions of Sun-Tsu’s  Art of War and the expected Tao of Deception in the way the MSS will handle Project “Xie” though this approach is no longer Chinese as the book will show.  

Lastly The Quantum Spy is also about the Chinese-Americans and what it means to be one. They are Americans through and through, “red, white and blue” (as in the case of Harris Chang, a former U.S. Marine major with stints in Iraq) some of whom working for the government while carrying an heritage that is more vivid than that of European descent. Whilst they do not experience overt racism as African Americans still may and are a minority that has been hugely successful in all aspects of American life, they are not part of the mainstream but dwindling white majority that has made America. There are still a lot of involuntary reminders that their skin is not white as old habits are slow to die even if they do. While Chinese students have excelled at joining top universities (to the point some feel discriminated against as affirmative action benefitting other minorities reduced their intake) they are still organised as associations on campuses, as we see in the book and are quick to defend their rights when feeling these are trampled. One of the features of the book is the drive by the MSS to remind those Chinese-Americans of their roots so they finally do the “right thing'” and indeed help China’s interests. Not being a specialist of this specific matter it is hard to assess the relevance and accuracy of that drive though my own experience dealing with Chinese-Americans in the field of business is that they are more American than Chinese, at times not even speaking the language fluently. This is not to say that obvious roots would not be a fertile ground for China to exploit in order to gain an advantage in many areas though like with anything the individual traits may matter more than race itself in terms of succeeding to exploit those roots.  

The Quantum Spy is a very well-written, multi-facetted book with a great story pace and host of characters who do not carry black and white (or yellow, if I may) features and also reflect the ever changing battlefield of intelligence in our times. Once again DI projects his known credibility in relation to intelligence story-telling and writing craft and it is no surprise that both Leon E. Panetta and Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under two very different administrations from 2006 to 2011 have only praise for DI and his realism and “could not put down” the book. 

Going back to old ways, I dedicate this book note to my young friend Qi, doubtless a patriot and a man with global lenses. 

Warmest regards,

(*) It should be noted that China has made great conciliatory moves recently in amending the laws to ban forced technology transfers from foreign companies operating in China, responding to Western concerns over cyber-espionnage or having 38 governmental agencies agreeing to crackdown on Intellectual Property rights infringements – also as China saw these moves as “win-win”. For more read the excellent FT op-ed from Key Jin in the FT dated 3 January 2019. 

It is clear that the Huawei-originated diplomatic spat between China and Canada (started with the jailing of Huawei’s CFO in Canada on espionage-related grounds) may overshadow these positive developments especially when a Canadian drug smuggler is now having to appeal a death sentence in China, creating, aside from the unusually harsh but hardly innocent sentencing, a very tough case that may not help soothe relationships with the West at a time of trade disputes even if it may hopefully be a tactical move on the part of the Middle Kingdom.