In November 1985 Chin, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested after a defector code-named PLANESMAN revealed that the veteran Central Intelligence Agency translator had been supplying CIA secrets to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chin had retired from the CIA in 1981 at age 63, having joined the Agency in 1952, and was believed to have sold information to the PRC for more than a million dollars over a period of 33 years, longer than any other spy known to have worked against the United States. Decorated for his distinguished service, Chin had been so highly valued by the CIAthat after his retirement the Agency had tried to persuade him to come back to work full-time.
Born in Beijing, Chin had worked for the U.S. Army’s liaison office in southern China in 1943 and then joined the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai as an interpreter. During his early career, he worked as an interrogator in 1952 for the State Department questioning Chinese POWs in Korea and with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) in Okinawa. This had led to a FBIS posting in California and finally to an appointment as a CIA case officer based in Virginia.
With access to the CIA’s national intelligence estimates on China, he had met his MSS handlers on trips to London, Hong Kong, and Toronto and not only had compromised thousands of classified documents but had also betrayed the sources upon which the CIA had depended for information from inside the PRC. The sheer volume of the material he sent to Beijing required the MSS to take two months to translate and process it.
Chin, who claimed that his additional income was derived from a successful blackjack gambling method, was found to have maintained meticulous records and was challenged about his travel to China, in particular being questioned about a specific hotel room in which he had stayed, that was known to have been under the control of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Confronted with what appeared to be incontrovertible evidence against him, Chin offered to act as a double agent and was then invited to describe the extent of his contacts with the MSS. For just over an hour Chin elaborated on his espionage, mentioning that he had supplied the Chinese with sensitive CIA material relating to Henry Kissinger’s historic visit to Beijing in preparation for President Richard Nixon’s momentous change in U.S. foreign policy on China. After Chin completed his exposition, he was arrested, and his confession was the basis of his prosecution.
At his trial on 17 counts of espionage, the prosecution intended to show, with the aid of color charts, that Chin had influenced almost every facet of Sino-American relations over several decades. It was never established precisely when he was recruited by the PRC or the full extent of his substantial real estate investments. Certainly he had met his Chinese contacts in Toronto, Hong Kong, and London and had most recently kept a rendezvous with them in the Far East in March 1985.
Rather than face a long prison sentence after he was convicted by a federal jury in February 1986 of espionage, conspiracy, and tax evasion, Chin suffocated himself in his cell in the Prince William County jail with a plastic garbage bag. His widow, suspicious as to why Chin had access to the shoelaces he used to secure the bag around his head, later claimed in a book printed in Chinese and published privately that he may not have taken his own life. However, those who knew him well were sure that he anticipated two life terms, but was most frightened of losing all his rental properties, and killed himself before being sentenced to forfeit his assets, thus preventing the Internal Revenue Service from taking any action that would impoverish his family.