Full and clear interview with journalist and author Bill Gertz. A special part of this conversation includes Bill’s deeper insights into his most recent book Deceiving the Sky.
Frank Kaufmann (0:00)
Good morning. I’m Frank Kaufman, president of the professor’s world peace Academy. Welcome to the PWPA Scholars Interview series. We are greatly honored to have with us this morning Mr. Bill Gertz. Bill Gertz is an internationally recognized national security journalist, currently a national security correspondent for The Washington Times. Mr. Gertz is the author of eight books, four of which were New York Times bestsellers. His most recent book is Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy. His 2016 book, entitled AI War: War and Peace in the Information Age, highlights 21st century threats posed by information warfare and cyber-attacks. Mr. Gertz wrote Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security. That too was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. His second book, The China threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America, was released in November 2001. The one following that, titled Breakdown: How America’s Intelligence Failures Led to September 11, also became a national best seller. It is a great pleasure to have Mr. Gertz with us here on the program this morning. Bill Gertz, thank you very much for joining us this morning. It’s fantastic to have you with us here
Bill Gertz (1:38)
It’s great to be here.
Frank Kaufmann (1:47)
And Bill, you go by Bill right. I don’t call you William Gertz or Mr. Kurtz or bill Gertz is very good. Okay. Appreciate that. Thanks a lot for making time. Because of your level of expertise, I know you’re under constant demand, and you’ve made time for us, which is our good luck. What I wanted to do with us is, I know that, like every second is precious, and China’s the point but I wanted to give a little chance for our listeners to know about you as a professional and as a successful person in a high profile field. And so, if you don’t mind just for the youngsters or for anybody just kind of dreaming of being in the work of journalistic life or journalism of some stripe, I’d love to ask you just a couple of questions. Personally, did you know this from a young age? Did you always have a bent in that way? Or when did you first kind of sense that this might be a path for you?
Bill Gertz (2:58)
Well, I guess it was probably when I work for an organization called the Freedom Leadership Foundation, which was working with dissidents in the Soviet Union and really focused on anti-communism and pro-freedom publication. And we published a small little newspaper called the Rising Tide, meaning the rising tide of freedom. And that’s that was in the late 1970s. So that was kind of my beginning point. I then joined the New York City Tribune in the early 80s. And during that period of time, I covered a major one, one of the last of the Watergate trials. It was two senior FBI officials who were persecuted for conducting covert break ins as part of their mission to conduct intelligence and counterintelligence operations. And, of course, that was in the Watergate period, again, it was a time of when journalism was at its height. The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein brought down a president and I realized that it had an appeal for me to be able to play a role, quite a significant role and have an impact by doing news reporting, and that’s kind of how I got into the business.
Frank Kaufmann (4:36)
I see. I see. So, you didn’t go to college and study journalism. It was more be being caught up in a passion of content rather than kind of a sense of a career. It was the issues you were covering, really that drove drew you into the work I sounds like.
Bill Gertz (4:57)
Well, I studied Journalism at George Washington University. But, again, in Washington. But my career has been around. I’m kind of a cold warrior. So that kind of has shaped my views and my outlook.
Frank Kaufmann (5:12)
Beautiful. Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you. And then again, sticking to this little patch, in our conversation here, just about the craft, you have risen to an enormously high status of influence in your field. And I was wondering if you have any kind of advice in terms for aspiring journalists, in terms of like, what are the what are the rules? It’s not so much like how to write, but what type of person does one have to be to be trusted with sources, to be not compromised in whatever temptations? Every field has its temptations. How do you stay on track? And how do you rise and become somebody? Apart from good luck and God’s grace? But did you have some kind of rules for the for what it means to do this job properly and with integrity? Or this kind of question, that might be good advice for an aspiring young writer?
Bill Gertz (6:24)
Well, first off, I would make the point that the news business is really facing a time of difficulty. And I think that news organizations, which once were driven by massive profits from the sale of display advertising in print editions, it’s all gone away. And the new model is everything shifting from print newspapers, to online digital publishing. And, again, broadcast journalism is a little bit different. But they have also been affected by the rise of cable news and the explosion of news outlets online. So, people are really searching for the model that can sustain good journalism, and it’s a problem. The second thing that has happened is the politicization of news. If you look at the New York Times, or The Washington Post, today, they’re not the same as they were even 10 or 15 years ago, when they when they were presenting both sides in an unbalanced way, usually balanced toward the liberal viewpoint. But we are now at the point where the news business is become very highly charged politically. And I think that that’s a real problem that needs to be solved. People need to be able to debate, I think that debate is the most important tool for presenting news, presenting balance, presenting both sides. I think those are those are key things I would look at in the news business. From a news reporting standpoint, I guess, in the news industry, the types of people that are in the news business, they generally fall down on two sides: writers and reporters, and editors. And you’ll see that editors are generally directing reporters, directing coverage, making decisions about what to cover, and how to cover it down to the tactical level of editing, copy, and how to present things. Whereas on the writing side and the reporting side, it’s really digging and trying to find stories, news stories. News is fairly ill defined, but it’s generally anything that we think people want to know, or things that we think they should know. So, it’s both informational and educational.
Frank Kaufmann (9:24)
Very good. Two more questions on this. And then I really want to get to the this, your book and China itself. At some point, you hit a juncture in your career in which it’s clear that in a certain way you’ve become somebody sought after if there’s anybody inside, say, government or a company and they want to get information to you in particular. And at this point, is there something that changes in life? Do you have to recalibrate your moral direction? Or do you never really know that? It only becomes evident to others. That, in a way, it’s kind of like you’re famous or you’re somebody, you’re an expert now. Is there something that happens in life that makes me realize, “Oh, now life is serious,” or, “now something’s changed?” Did that happen to you?
Bill Gertz (10:33)
Not really. I still consider myself a newsman, a news reporter. Somebody’s looking for a good story. I’m probably kind of on the tail end of my career now. But I think that when we talk about the news business, especially on the reporting side, we have a saying that you’re only as good as your sources. And so, it requires the ability to develop sources of information. And I’ve just been very lucky in my career to have really good sources. I remember former CIA director Jim Woolsey saying, one time he said, “Bill used to drive me crazy, because I couldn’t figure out where the leaks were coming from. But now that I’m out of the CIA, I read his stuff to find out what’s going on.” So that’s kind of a, it’s kind of the way it goes. But I try to get information and I try to develop sources who can provide me with the information. It’s become very, very difficult in recent years, specifically in the aftermath of two major, what they call insider cases, inside the US government. The first was the case of Sergeant Manning, the Army Intelligence person that was in Iraq and leaked massive amounts of classified information. That was followed by the Edward Snowden case, which was even more damaging. And as a result of that, the government has really sought to tighten up what they call the insider threat. And part of that effort has been to protect their information. But one of the negative effects of that is that they regard the press as the enemy, as an enemy force to be dealt with as an enemy, whereas in the past many places in government or other institutions, they looked at the press as kind of a force multiplier. In other words, you could get positive stories out about whatever it was that you wanted to express. So that’s kind of where things are
Frank Kaufmann (12:53)
Interesting. Almost a fundamental shift, what you’re describing. The last thing is, you’ve written a lot of books. Is there a time in life where suddenly you realize my articles or my, you know, my news reporting, I have more to say than that? Did you have to develop a new power or new skill or new discipline? Or is it almost the same, just writing more? How is that change like?
Bill Gertz (13:25)
I would say that it’s part of the shift in the overall news business, the print side of the news business, which is now really the digital side, but it’s still print. That has been the driving force for the news business. Even before the advent of the Internet. It was always that the print reporters were the foundation for what was broadcast or what was spread. But I think that now, with the explosion of news outlets, and how things are being spread online, the rise of fake news and false information and conspiracy theories, it’s created new problems. And I think we’re seeing debates now. As the democrats are in power now, they’re actually talking about stifling free speech and the Free Press. We’re in a perilous period where canceled culture is a real danger. I think that one of the biggest examples was the New York Times when they published a Op Ed, an opinion article by Senator Tom Cotton, which said that the US should call out troops to put down the riots that were taking place last summer in the throughout the cities in America. And this this created such a huge backlash within the New York Time staff that they said that this threatened their reporters. Now, if a reporter feels threatened by an Op Ed piece, they shouldn’t be in the news business. I mean, this is the snowflake culture that’s really going to be destructive of our whole society overall. Those are the kinds of things that we’re dealing with today. But, you know, basically my view is I look for stories that no one else has. And that’s getting much more difficult to do. The strategy for writing stories is that if you can break big stories, for example, today, I published a report in The Washington Times which revealed, no one else has reported on it, that China has revived decades old disinformation claiming that the United States military in during the Korean War used biological weapons. The backdrop for this is that new questions are being raised amid the pandemic about what kinds of covert biological warfare research was being carried out at the Wu Han Institute of Virology, which is one of the two main possible theoretical origins of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Frank Kaufmann (16:12)
Very interesting, very interesting. That’s an important article. Good, that brings us right to the edge of the main reason why we’re together, and that’s to discuss China. I mean, you’ve written tons on China, but I’ve prepared from your book called Deceiving the Sky. And a couple of little front-end questions on that. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, exactly where it’s at now? If its original publication is coming out again? Is it revised? Can you tell us a little bit about just the history of this particular piece of writing?
Bill Gertz (16:57)
Yes, Deceiving the Sky is my eighth book and it was published in the Fall of 2019. And basically, it did very well and it’s very popular. It’s an extremely good primer on the subject of what I call the China threat. That is actually the second China book that I wrote. The first one came out in 2000 and was called The China Threat. And that title way back 21 years ago was a play on what Beijing calls the China Threat Theory. The Communist Party of China has tasked its diplomats, intelligence personnel, and businesspeople all around the world to monitor the level of opposition to China. They call that the China Threat Theory and they try to measure how that effort hinders their development. And again, because they’re on a rise—beyond rise, they literally have designs for global domination, for Chinese Communist Party supremacy. After I wrote that book, every publisher after that said they would not publish a single topic China book, and I was curious as to why. They never explained why, it may have been business reasons. They told me that you can have chapters on China, but they didn’t want to have a full book on China. Well, beginning in 2019, I decided. I said, “Look, so much has happened since the China Threat was published. It’s imperative that I do an update, that I do a follow up on the China Threat.” And so, Deceiving the Sky. That’s how I started that. And, again, it came out at the end of 2019. But, yeah, right now, at the end of March will be the publication of the paperback edition with a new preface that will be coming out. I think the publication date for that is March 30.
Frank Kaufmann (19:23)
Okay, so March 30, the paperback. And if that is that a typical timeframe for publishers working their numbers? They’ll have hardback for a period of time. Okay, very good. Very good. And if you don’t mind, how about the name itself? It’s a great one.
Bill Gertz (19:45)
Yeah. Well, you know, I initially wanted to title the book, The New Evil Empire, because that’s really what we’re seeing in the case of China. It’s very similar to the Soviet Communist empire. It’s also very much different in a lot of different ways. But deceiving the sky is based on ancient Chinese strategy. And it’s basically going back, I think it’s three 300BC was a period called the Warring States Era. And it was during this period where there were warlords and factions. The main issue was, again, fighting among many different feudal areas of China. And there is a story based on deceiving the sky. There are 32 Chinese strategies. Everyone’s familiar with Sun Tzu. But there is this other book on the 32 Chinese strategies, the very first of which says deceive the sky to cross the ocean. And it’s based on a story, a fable, that an emperor was reluctant to go to war with a neighboring province. And one of his generals basically tricked the Emperor into going to war. And he did that by inviting the Emperor to dinner at a wealthy peasant’s house. And when the Emperor stepped on the wealthy peasant’s house, he felt it move. It was a ship, and they were on their way. And the Emperor had to decide whether to go to war or to go back. And he decided to go to war. In Chinese culture, the Emperor is considered God or the sky. So, the idea behind this strategy is you have to be willing to deceive God or deceive the Emperor in order to achieve your ends. And I think this is very appropriate for what is happening today among the Communist Party of China, that they are using all means, and especially deception in order to achieve their goal, which is ultimately creating a world in which China is the supreme power. The most important part of that is that China recognizes that in order to achieve that global dominance, that global supremacy, they have to defeat and ultimately destroy the United States, that is the main impediment to their achieving this status as the supreme power in the world.
Frank Kaufmann (22:25)
Very right. I just want to say to the listeners here that Mr. Gertz is speaking in just plain straight, broad strokes, but the book is very dense and very detailed in the defense and support of these kind of broad stroke positions that the book takes. If I may, I want to go through a few things that struck me as I read. One of the things which comes, it leaves me confused, that it seems to me that people who are in high positions of power, including intelligence and military, these are the positions where you’re vetted 1000 times over, you’ve got to be a patriot of the most impeccable order, you know, that it has clearances and the like, in the light. And yet, as I read that there seems to be even at the very highest, highest levels of people who are meant to be caring for our country, protecting our country, anticipating threats to our country, that it’s kind of riven with people who are just plain either fooled or deceived, or they don’t see any of the things you’re pointing out. And they seem so plain in evidence. I should have written down a couple of the names of the people you described. He described someone of very high diplomatic representation, telling you, “oh, China’s not a threat,” or something like that. Can you add to me how that happens?
Bill Gertz (24:11)
Yeah, sure. In fact, I tell this story, and this was what actually inspired me to begin writing about the Communist Party of China and its activities and operations, and it goes back to my first book, which was theChina Threat. I was, at the time, a young Washington Times reporter. I went to the Pentagon and got a briefing on the Chinese military, which, back then, again, the press wasn’t viewed as the enemy and they were they were very helpful in providing background briefings like that. It wasn’t revelatory. There wasn’t a lot of details, but it was an was an important thing. At the end of the briefing on the Chinese military, a Colonel came in and said, “the general would like to see you.” The general it turns out was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the top military intelligence official in government. And we sat down in a conference room, in a windowless room in the Pentagon. And he began to tell me, “Bill, China’s not a threat.” And I, using my reporter’s inquisitiveness, I asked him why he thought that and his response to me was basically, “because they say they’re not a threat.” Now, this really shocked me, because I could expect that from civilian intelligence analysts and especially policy analysts who are constantly misinterpreting China. But to hear the top military official tell you that a country that is a communist state, that has a communist system, that has nuclear weapons, and yet was not a threat, was really amazing to me. And it to me, it showed that China’s ability to deceive the West had achieved massive success in fooling the top officials in intelligence. Now, I could argue that the general was merely trying to spin me in order to fit some policy. But it was very dishonest of him to say that, and I’ve seen that I’ve seen that theme, this idea that China is not a threat It began way back in the 70s, when Richard Nixon did his big opening to China and we played the China card. But then after the Soviet Union fell, the pro-China policy went on autopilot, it was never revised. And so we had this decades long thing to the point where during the George W. Bush administration, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, went so far as to say not only was China not a threat, but that the United States preferred a strong China. And of course, this was never enunciated why we wanted this other than that we wanted to trade with them. But it’s part of a narrative that has been developed by several elements of the US government and the private sector. For example, the business community, they were the ones that drooled at the idea of 1.4 billion market of consumers who could buy products and things. From the policy side, we had the leftover Nixon era policy of China as a quasi-ally, and therefore we have to do it. The foreign policy elites also argued that, well, the power of trade and capitalism was so strong that if we just traded with China, that this would have a moderating influence and that we saw China pretending to be a quasi-capitalist state, that this would have a moderating effect and ultimately transform this communist system into a non-threatening capitalist system. Well, to me, that was the biggest failure of the past 40 years. I call it the engagement Gambit, the idea that if we just engaged in trade with China, that it would change that. Instead, what has happened is, China was built up with the theft of American technology with business, people that did business invested in unfair trade practices, for example, when businesses would go into China, they would be required to turn over valuable intellectual property that the Chinese would then steal and use for their benefit and to the negative effect of American and Western companies. So this is kind of the situation where we are today, we’ve created this monster that is now on the march and poses what I consider the most serious threat to freedom and democracy and our basic way of life that we that we have seen since the World War II period.
Frank Kaufmann (29:16)
Yeah. Is it possible for you to kind of spin out rough numbers or percentages? You speak of people like Pompeo. And who is it, Yu? Miles Yu?
Bill Gertz (29:37)
Frank Kaufmann (29:38)
Now, these people get it. From what I understand they get it. They’re clear. Are they in the vast majority? Is it a steep uphill battle or is it a 50:50 or in terms of, I’m not talking about democrat republican, we kind of know where that goes, but just inside a family of sincere American patriots that care for the country. And then you mentioned icons of the right, like Condoleezza Rice, who sounds like, kind of gets it wrong a little bit. Are the getting it wrong ones in the high percentage? Or what are we talking about? Are you like a tiny little rebel force? I hope you get my question. This fraternity of people that get it. Is it tiny? Is it 50:50, or what are you looking at?
Bill Gertz (30:32)
I think that in the last four years, during the Trump administration, we’ve seen a major shift away from the unfettered engagement policy towards China, toward a recognition that, Houston, we have a problem, that this is a very serious threat to our way of life and our society. That said, the bureaucracy within government and the pro-China elements in the business community and other sectors of society have not changed. There are a lot. I would say that it’s as a percentage, probably if I were to put a figure on it, that 25% that get it 50% that are thinking about it, and then 50% that want to go back to the old ways. And yeah, and I think the biggest misunderstanding about China today, and this is still pervasive, is this notion that China’s not really a communist state. And I remember doing a debate by a group called Intelligence Squared in New York City. I was on a panel with Mike Pillsbury, and Walter Mears Heimer. And then on the other side the pro-China people were Stapleton Roy, who is a protege of Henry Kissinger, and then a businessman, whose name was Richard McGregor. And he told me afterwards, he said, he’s been doing business in China for 20 years, and he’s never met a communist. And to me, this was simply astounding. And I told him, I said, well, you should next time you’re in China, you should visit the People’s Liberation Army Museum, which I was able to do back in the late 90s during an official visit there with Secretary of Defense and inside the PLA Museum, they have statues of all the early communist founders. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin. Even Stalin was still in there. Yet this understanding of Chinese communist ideology has been totally misunderstood. And you’ll hear people say, “Oh, they don’t really believe in it. They’re just going through the motions,” and that’s absolutely not the case. And it’s become much more evident under the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who is really kind of become kind of the new Mao Zedong of China, the absolute dictator, going back to the old communist ways. And so that’s really the problem. And I learned this, especially from, as you mentioned, Miles Yu. He worked on the policy planning staff for Secretary of State Pompeo. And he better than anyone, and I quoted him in my book as really, really educating people to the, the ideological threat of Chinese communists.
Frank Kaufmann (33:57)
The as I read, and I’m trying to solve my confusion, it’s, again, I’ve described it already that I can’t understand why people don’t get it, why they persist in certain kinds of fallacies and niceisms. And there’s, “no, it’s not communist.” And one of the things that struck me is that it’s almost as though one needs to start with principles rather than with the anecdotal. It seems like all our experts are, “Well, I met a Chinese person once,” or like this gentleman says, “I’ve been doing business in China.” If you start with no principles, you don’t have any prism or lenses through which to see clearly and would you say is that part of how this this kind of billowing smoke of, “well, they’re all right,” and, “they’re, you know, they’re changing,” or it’s what I call taxicab anecdotal-ism expertise or something like that. I took a cab from the airport and now I’m an expert on New York.
Bill Gertz (35:03)
I think that’s more ideological. From the American perspective, I think that it’s no think tank or no academic has really looked at this question of why the United States and people in the United States have so misunderstood the Communist Party of China, I think part of it is the war of narratives. One is what I call the ant-anti-communist view, that’s a view that is kind of a leftover from the 50s and the McCarthy period where anybody who expresses opposition to communism is considered worse than a communist. And I’m not exaggerating. Then there’s another sector, which I called the New Left, which arose during the 1960s, in the anti-war period. And after they were beaten in the streets in Chicago in 1968, they carried out what they called the Long March through the institutions of America. And a lot of these new left radicals really looked at China as the model of future communism. Whereas the Soviet Union was looked at as bad communism, China was viewed as good. And I think that that has really become a very underlying narrative in a lot of people’s political outlooks.
Frank Kaufmann (36:34)
Very interesting. That’s very helpful. Thanks. We’re getting short on time. There were far more things I had planned than there’s time for. I’ll just pick two, if I may. And I’ll just give them up front. You can work your way through as you like. As I read, I was surprised to find who I thought were less patriotic rose to greater sensitivity to the China threat. And like in your description, elements in the CIA were very weak and very vulnerable and very susceptible to being infiltrated and misled by Chinese designs. Whereas you described the FBI, as I was quite surprised, you said there’s 2000 special agents on Chinese counterintelligence and 5000 current FBI counterintelligence cases. And then Christopher Wray was at the head of this and typically for conservatives or pro-Trump conservatives, Wray has been a suspicious character and the FBI has been kind of a denigrated institution. And yet, that between the two intelligence agencies, FBI, CIA, it looks like from your writing and research that the CIA was the one that was more was weak and the FBI was strong was a curiosity to me, that if, if that’s of interest for you to talk about, and then the last question I’ll put up front, so that we can you can close on whatever you think is best for us to know. We are entering into a period of totalitarian censorship, book burning, the forbidding of dissent, the manipulation of digital content to prevent dissenting voices. It’s a very threatening time. Presently, in the United States, they have exploited the narrative of insurrection to kind of define all conservative opinion as the threat of violence or incitation of violence, simply having a classical kind of Christian view of the world is suddenly the incitation of violence. So that ties for me to the Chinese issues regarding the National Public Credit Information Center you describe, and I forget the term, social credit system. And I feel I feel like that’s being threatened here as well. So, these were with kind of flipping of the agencies which I thought one was better, then the opposite one was better, Wray came out. Not a bad guy in this, that surprised me. And then on the other thing, just in general, if you can speak to the precipice that we’re standing on, in terms of how close it’s coming in the US to these kinds of horrific realities of the social credit system that is oppressing the people of China.
Bill Gertz (39:45)
Okay, first on the FBI. You have to look at it in the context of the Trump administration. They set very early on and there’s a remarkable National Security Council document that was declassified, maybe January of this year. And in that they laid out what they wanted to do with dealing with China. And they were successful in a number of major areas. And I would call them pockets of excellence. And the key pockets of excellence, as you mentioned, were the State Department under Mike Pompeo, who really got it better than any Secretary of State in recent memory. The second area that was a pocket of excellence was the Justice Department of which the FBI is a part of. Now, the FBI was negatively politicized under the Obama administration to the point where we saw what kind of counterintelligence people they had in Peter Strzok, it was a joke that this guy was the most senior counterintelligence official and had been totally politicized and completely unprofessional as the documents in that matter showed. But at the Justice Department, they formed something called the China Initiative. And it was this China Initiative that was one of the most active and successful policy changes. By the way, the China Initiative, as far as I can tell, has not been given up by the Biden administration. And they’re continuing on almost a monthly sometimes on a bi-weekly basis of prosecutions of China related espionage. And that’s where this figure of the 2000 agents and the 5000 investigations comes in. So, the FBI is basically saluting and following the directive of the Justice Department, as it should be. And it was the Justice Department that was really driving the train on what the kinds of activities it was Pompeo and Miles Yu said we need to enunciate the US Trump administration policy towards China. And they did that through a series of speeches, many of which I took part in. For one, I flew to Phoenix where National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien gave a major speech on the China threat. Christopher Wray also gave a major speech. Again, these speeches don’t sound like big deals, but in order to get the speeches out they had to release a lot of classified information on Chinese intelligence activities to the light.
On the second part. I would say that, yeah, we are, as I mentioned earlier, we are living in perilous times as it as it stands for press freedom. And I agree in some sense that it’s very difficult to try and educate and alert people in the United States to the threat posed by China when our own system is under threat from the radical left in the United States. And that is clearly a new a new threat. That said, if we have any foreign policy priority, it has to be that it’s going to take all of the United States’ efforts to deal with the threat posed by China. And I mean that across the board. I don’t think we should be focusing on the Middle East. I don’t think we should be focusing on these other places; it’s going to require a 100% effort to deal with the China threat. And that I think is the most important message of my book, deceiving the sky that we really have to take on this this challenge.
Frank Kaufmann (44:02)
Thank you very much. Bill, I know that you are rushing from interview to interview. You have one in just a few minutes and so I will wrap up by just thanking you again for your time and your clarity and wishing you continued health and strength to keep getting the word out.
Bill Gertz (44:20)
Well thanks very much. Bye.
Frank Kaufmann (44:20)
We’ll talk again.