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Spy vs. Spy: The Yin-he Incident and U.S.-China Intelligence Rivalry

Was the intelligence correct? Was the U.S. being set up? These were questions facing John Tkacik when the United States picked up evidence in 1993 that a Chinese cargo ship, the Yin-he, was shipping chemical weapons precursor to Iran. Tkacik was a China specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and the supposedly “solid gold” intelligence went straight to the President.  A global saga diplomacy, spycraft and public diplomacy ensued — and ended with U.S., and Saudi Arabian officials assembled at the port of Dammam on the Persian Gulf for the dramatic opening of the suspect container. Its contents: “toys, ballpoint pens, and a lot of anodyne stuff.”

China enjoyed a propaganda coup.  But Tkacik points out that China’s record on proliferation issues in the early 1990s was still highly problematic.

John Tkacik got his bachelor’s  degree in International Relations from Georgetown University in 1971. He joined the foreign service that same year.  His first posting was as a consular officer in Reykjavik, Iceland. He had a great interest in China and went on to serve in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.  He also served as the lead China analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

John Tkacik was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 23, 2001. You can read his full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Simone van Heijst

“The intelligence went to the White House.

Chemical Weapon Precursors for Iran?: “It was in late July 1993 that we must have picked up the intelligence that the Yin-he, a container ship, was going to leave Shanghai for Hong Kong, Jakarta, Dammam in Saudi Arabia, with the final stop being in Iran at [the port of Bandar Abbas].  We got intelligence somehow that the ship was carrying chemical weapons precursors to Iran. We thought this was solid gold intelligence….”

“…The intelligence went to the White House via the Presidential Daily brief (PDB).  It went to Tony Lake (head of National Security) first. I think Tony Lake had just had the last straw placed upon his back with the Chinese. He was insistent that he would not let this one go. We had to do something about it . . . Well, the word went out that Tony Lake was actually planning to stop the ship on the high seas, anything to prevent this thing from getting to Iran . . . ”

Somebody said, are the Chinese setting us up?”

US-China Tensions on Proliferation Issues:  “. . . Somebody said, are the Chinese setting us up? We constantly pestered the Chinese on all sorts of proliferation issues. The M-11s [nuclear warhead-capable missiles] were one, but there were reports of the Chinese selling nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan. There were Chinese fingerprints all over the North Korean nuclear issue. The Chinese were certainly in Iran. We had a lot of evidence of them selling weapons to Iran, in violation of the Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act that was passed in Congress in the 1980s.”

“Looking at all of the intelligence and collating it all together, we thought that number one, it was by our standards fairly good intelligence . . .  But there was a possibility that we were being set up. So the CIA’s concern was the intelligence was good, but if we tell the Chinese, then they’ll try to figure a way of getting rid of the evidence. So what do we do?”

“The answer at this point was we have to assume that the Chinese government does not know that Chinese companies are transporting illegal chemical weapons precursors to Iran. So let’s go to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and ask them a question, which is, “Is it indeed against Chinese law to sell this chemical to foreign countries?” I believe it was Sha Zugang that took the demarche, went back, and then responded the next day that yes, it would be illegal to sell this stuff to Iran.”

“Once we had that, then the decision was made to send in the U.S. Ambassador at the time, “Stape” (Stapleton) Roy, to personally demache the Foreign Ministry to say that we have intelligence that this ship, the Yin-he, is transporting dangerous chemical weapons precursors from Dalian [China] via Singapore to Iran. The thing was that we didn’t want to make that demarche while the ship was still in Chinese ports.”

“The Chinese said you are mistaken. There are no chemical weapons precursors on that ship.”

Attempted Inspections and Chinese Denials: “The next port of call was Singapore. We then liaised with the Singaporean customs. They went on board and demanded to look at the shipping manifest. There it was – I’m making this up now – it was like shipping container 2806, bound for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The Singaporeans said yes, the thing is there. The Singaporean customs captain that went on board the boat talked to the master of the Yin-he and said see here, you’ve got this container number 2806. Where is that container? The Singaporean customs said we want to look at it. The captain said sure.”

“Evidently, the containers were packed so tightly together than there was room for a human being to get down in the hold between the containers, but there was no way to open the doors. You couldn’t open it up to look at it. The Singaporeans shone their flashlights down in the hold and said maybe we don’t have to go down there after all.”

“In Jakarta, in late August 1993, we knew the ship was coming in. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had tasked the attachés to go and watch the damned thing being unloaded. So that day, when the ship came into Jakarta, DIA had its liaison people accompany them down to the side of the ship. The entire 12 hours it was in port being loaded, DIA was watching . . .”

“At this point, this is when the ship was between Jakarta and Dammam, going across the eastern Indian Ocean, around the tip of India, up into the Arabian Sea, we sent the ambassador in to demarche the Chinese. The Chinese said you are mistaken. There are no chemical weapons precursors on that ship. I think we demarched them and then they said we’ll check into it. They came back and said you are wrong. There is nothing on that ship.”

“Well, we had the manifest from the customs people in Singapore saying that container was there . . . . That story was actually in the Far East Economic Review the next week. Somebody leaked it. We didn’t leak it. It was probably the Singaporeans.”

“It had toys, ballpoint pens, and a lot of anodyne stuff.”

A joint inspection: “Meanwhile the ship is steaming its way on. Finally, it gets to the Arabian Sea. The port they were going to was Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Boy, the ship’s master began to get anxious about this. The Chinese said we’re not going to let you inspect that ship. This is ridiculous. This is a sovereign ship. We have given you our word that there is nothing on this ship. You can go jump in the lake. Tony Lake was not going to let the ship go. Finally, the Chinese said okay, we will permit the ship to be inspected. It will go to the Saudi Arabian port of Dammam on such and-such a day. We will inspect it jointly with you guys and the Saudi Arabian customs.

“They went out. It was a big delegation. There were about 23 CIA people. The embassy sent people from Riyadh. The Chinese had a big delegation get off a Chinese airplane in Dammam. They all made a big ceremony out of off-loading every one of the containers at Dammam, every one of them. We had the container we wanted, so we went straight to that container and opened it. It had toys, ballpoint pens, and a lot of anodyne stuff.”

“There was a certain amount of crestfallenness when we, the CIA guys, opened the one container we thought prohibited goods were in. And it wasn’t in there. Then they began looking at all of the containers. There was anodyne stuff in every one of those containers. Sheepishly and shamefacedly, we cleared our throats and suggested that maybe the ship be reloaded and sent on its way to Bandar Abbas.”

“It was a propaganda coup for the Chinese.”

Intelligence Rivalries: “It was a propaganda coup for the Chinese. From that point on, the Chinese have pointed to the Yin-he and said you Americans claim you’ve got intelligence on this kind of crap, and blah, blah. We’re not listening to you anymore . . .”

“It is possible that the Chinese knew how to yank our intelligence cranks by just saying things off the cuff, or letting people know things, knowing full well that would come back to the U.S. intelligence community. And then the U.S. intelligence community would turn themselves inside out trying to figure out what was going on. The problem was we could never figure out if it was a deliberate set up, that we had been gobsmacked, or by pure bad luck the intelligence that we had was inaccurate because a certain container just never made it to the right place at the right time.”



     BA in International Relations, Georgetown University                              1967-1971

    National War College                                                                                          1989

Joined the Foreign service                                                                             1971

Reykjavik, Iceland—Consular Officer                                                                  1971-1953

Taipei, China—Visa Officer                                                                                    1974-1976

Beijing, China—Consular Officer                                                                          1977-1979

Washington D.C., United States—Taiwan Desk                                                1979-1982

     Political Military Officer

Gangzhou, China—Deputy Principle Officer                                                     1989-1992

Washington D.C.—Chief of China Analysis INR                                              1992-1994