Slender threads of brownish smoke rose from a forest of chimneys and twisted upward into the winter mist. Collectively they wove a dark cloak that shrouded Edinburgh as a well-appointed carriage bearing an American family appeared in the gloom. The coachman’s faint lamp barely penetrated the gathering darkness as the carriage rattled past the outlines of the city’s tall, narrow tenements. In search of lodging, the Americans had found themselves in a damp, forbidding place, reeking of dung and smoke—a place that might have served as the perfect setting for a suspenseful spy story.
It was December 1811, and one thing distinguished Francis Cabot Lowell, his wife, and his young children from most other people navigating the city’s narrow streets that afternoon. The Lowells had plenty of money, and it showed. Alert coachmen hustled them through the knotty traffic of downtown Prince’s Street, and innkeepers always summoned up an extra bit of warmth.
Lowell came from great wealth, but he was no mere rich man’s son. A Harvard graduate, he had used his skill as a mathematician to expand a Boston docking and warehouse business. Now, at 35, well dressed and studiously self-effacing, he was a man looking for a much grander venture. Lowell played to local prejudices about the inferiority of the American environment by letting it be known that he was in Scotland for reasons of health. Lowell’s neighbors observed that as winter receded the Lowell family carriage appeared almost daily in front of the house, and Mr. and Mrs. Lowell, leaving their children behind with the governess, went on extended trips into the countryside. They often visited places as far away as Lancashire and Derbyshire to take the country air.
That was the cover story. In fact, Lowell was the most skilled economic spy of his generation, and he had ambitions to take in much more than country air. By hitching cotton-weaving machinery to the cheap, perpetual motion of waterpower, Britain had revolutionized the textile industry, transforming Lancashire and Derbyshire into places of phenomenal riches. The newly built mills had literally created the world’s industrial age. Lowell plotted his tours as methodical explorations of this 18th-century Silicon Valley. Huge fortunes had been made there by replacing the skilled hand labor of many thousands of people with water-driven looms so simple and so reliable that they could be run by a handful of unskilled women and children. The perpetually humming, swishing, clanking machines changed cheap imported U.S. cotton into bolts of fancy calico that fetched fancy prices in Paris, Berlin, and Boston. They had made rural England and Scotland into a money machine that was the envy of the world.
Not surprisingly, His Majesty’s Government was determined to protect the sources of the Industrial Revolution from outsiders. By the end of the 18th century, the British passed rigorous patent laws and banned the export of cotton-weaving technology. When foreigners found loopholes by recruiting skilled workers and luring them abroad, this was made a crime. So were the acts of making and exporting drawings of the machinery in the mills. Fortresslike walls topped with spikes and broken glass quickly grew up around the mills, and workers were sworn to secrecy. Skilled technicians who went abroad under false pretenses had their property summarily confiscated by the Crown.
Spies are normally associated with wartime and the theft of military technology. In the vast popular literature about espionage, there is hardly a mention of the peacetime industrial spy. One reason may be that spy stories tend to blossom when wars end. War is relatively clearcut: there is a winner and an eventual loser, a beginning and an end. The end is normally the signal for the memoir writers to begin, but the economic struggle that attracted Lowell’s stealthy genius is not clear-cut. Winners win quietly, and losers are often either unconscious of loss or too embarrassed to admit it. And it is a war that does not end. The stage for the studiously low-key dramas of economic espionage is set, as one perceptive French writer puts it, in a kind of perpetual limbo, where there is neither war nor peace.
Moreover, because economic competition often seems peaceful, economic espionage is usually a more fruitful, less risky business. Sentries are more apt to be napping. Often there simply aren’t any. The work of spies in wartime is dangerous and frequently only marginally useful, but the damage a clever spy can wreak in a supposedly peaceful economic setting is often invisible and decisive. And the victims—especially if they must answer to angry stockholders—are not often inclined to want a history.
Against this background, the magnitude of what Lowell achieved has few parallels, even in spy fiction. Few Americans recognize his name, but we are all indebted to this shrewd Yankee. By stealing Britain’s most valuable secret, by analyzing it and quickly acting upon it, he brought the Industrial Revolution to New England and built the economic engine that later helped drive the North to victory in the Civil War. That, in turn, laid the cornerstone for a level of prosperity that created the American Century and led to the formation of the world’s largest and richest economy.
Yankee ingenuity being what it once was, there were plenty of prominent Americans trying to steal secrets from Britain. But none went so far as Lowell. He was after the Cartwright loom, the crown jewel of the British textile industry. This was a water-driven weaving machine invented by Edmund Cartwright, the fourth son of a country squire, a restless, seemingly unfocused man who dabbled in poetry, the ministry, and experimental farming until he became intrigued by the shortcomings of some of the machinery he chanced to observe in the neighboring Derbyshire mills. So he dabbled in machinery. The result was a loom so powerful and efficient that the British Parliament later awarded him a bonus of £10,000. The importance of the Cartwright loom to Britain’s booming economy placed it at the top of a pantheon of industrial secrets.
We still don’t know how Lowell got the detailed plans for this tightly guarded machine, but the arrogance of the new lords of Britain’s industry probably helped him. They tended to look down upon outsiders, especially the American rustics. Some, such as Edward Temple Booth, owner of a Norwich worsted mill, waived the rule stipulating that all plants be closed to foreigners. He reasoned: "When machinery is peculiarly complicated you may show it with good effect, I think, because it makes the difficulty of imitation appear greater." British customs officers, perhaps sensing that something was up, went through the Lowells’ baggage twice when they embarked for home in 1813. They found nothing unusual because Lowell, who is credited by most historians with having a photographic memory, probably carried the blueprints in his head.
Back home, Lowell rented a Boston storefront and hired a first-rate mechanic. Together, they built a scale model of the Cartwright loom. Then Lowell hired a second man to turn a crank until they had all the gears and pulleys working in the rigid, reliable mechanical dance necessary for a perpetual weaving machine. When they had it right, Lowell quickly implemented his other plans, which involved new ways to integrate labor and capital into industrial plants where raw materials would be turned into finished products in the same factory. His company built its first mill at Waltham and later constructed a mill complex in Lowell, the city named for him. By producing up to 30 miles of cloth a day in a nation that then knew very little besides hand labor, Lowell, Massachusetts, provided the first big shock that jolted America into the industrial age.
The object of economic espionage, however, is not simply to gain some secret advantage over a competitor. Steps must then be taken to slow the competitor’s attempts to recover. In 1816, a year before he died at the age of 42, Lowell journeyed to Washington, where he persuaded Congress to impose a punishing 6.25 cent tariff on each square yard of imported cotton.
From Sidney Reilly to Aldrich Ames, the secrets of wartime spies are the stuff of great drama when they emerge at war’s end. But economic wars don’t end, and Lowell appears to have taken pains to make sure his secrets would never emerge. He kept no diary, confined his letters to family matters, and appears to have shared the method of his great triumph with no one. A man whose impact was so profound that one historian calls him "an American Newton," Lowell almost managed to erase his own likeness from posterity. But after he died, a workman found a silhouette stuck behind the frame of an old picture in Lowell’s office. It shows a man with a long, sloping nose and a weak chin. Apart from the largest, richest industrial economy on earth, it is all we have left to remind us of Francis Cabot Lowell.
If there were a way to revive Lowell and bring him back to his beloved country at the end of the 20th century, the story of Rip van Winkle would not begin to describe the otherworldly shock, the endless ironies, and the boundless frustration that this spy of spies would experience.
He would discover that his world had been stood on its head during the 180 years of his slumber. Let us take him, stumbling, bearded, and blearyeyed, through some of the many corridors of our economy and see what he would find.
First, the spark of economic life that he helped bring into being has become a beacon to the entire world. The United States of America, once decidedly an economic backwater, a place of dubious investment opportunities, a haven for adventurers, visionaries, and the cast-off poor of other cultures, has become a glistening machine that produces $6.8 trillion in new wealth every year.
But while Lowell’s Washington had politicians who had firsthand experience with the results of unheeded security threats—such as being chased out of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812—the Washington that Lowell would find today is a place where most politicians believe that such threats are a thing of the past. Winners of a game that has supposedly ended, they talk endlessly of the perquisites and obligations of "the world’s only remaining superpower." The United States has the most powerful economy, the biggest single market, the richest technological treasures, the most widely circulated currency, the largest and freest flow of information, the most powerful military, the most admired university system, and the most elaborate and costly apparatus of protective laws, lawyers, judges, intelligence services, and law enforcement units the world has ever seen.
But once he overcame his initial shock at millions of people whizzing along wide freeways and at vast, brazen cities winking at him by night, Lowell, a remarkably shrewd man, would quickly sense that something was missing. The public’s belief in the value of economic intelligence—a belief that made him a national hero and sometimes led citizens in Revolutionary-era communities to parade in the streets when discoveries were brought in from abroad—seems to have vanished entirely. While Lowell knew a citizenry that was hungry for development and preoccupied with building an economy out of scraps of knowledge imported from overseas, he would now find a different breed of American, born with the assumption that all necessary knowledge is here. He would find an America drifting into a profoundly introspective, isolationist, and even anti-intellectual mood.
There would be no end to the paradoxes Lowell would find. Where there was once a small elite of entrepreneurial citizen-spies like himself who rubbed shoulders with the Washingtons, Jeffersons, and Hamiltons of their day, today the business of collecting intelligence has become for Americans a strangely professional, closed, and often suspect activity. It is dominated by huge bureaucracies that seem almost indifferent when it comes to economic affairs. Unlike the people of economic powers such as Japan, Sweden, China, France, South Korea, and Taiwan, countries where citizen-spies such as Lowell still abound, Americans have the feeling they are above this sordid business and that they are somehow removed and protected from it.
Only—Lowell would discover—they are not. The game of economic espionage continues, as it has for thousands of years, but now the tally of wins and losses is locked inside the nation’s sprawling intelligence apparatus, which costs some $28 billion a year to maintain. And there is yet another fundamental difference: whereas Lowell’s America searched the world for fresh economic intelligence, the United States in the 1990s seems content to stay at home. This America has become the chief target of the world’s economic spies—a sizeable force hailing from at least 20 major countries whose identities and doings remain closely guarded state secrets.
Lowell was a wily Yankee who knew how to obtain secrets, so let’s suppose that in an effort to orient himself he got his hands on a copy of a report by an intergovernmental working group, the National Economic Council (NEC), which includes experts from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the departments of Treasury, State, Defense, Commerce, and Justice, and representatives from the White House. Prepared for Congress’s intelligence committees in 1994, the report is stamped SECRET NO FORN. (This indicates that the information is not to be shared with any foreign powers, including allies.) The document notes that, "Reports obtained since 1990 indicate that economic espionage is becoming increasingly central to the operations of many of the world’s intelligence services and is absorbing larger portions of their staffing and budget."
In the early 1980s, it was estimated that at least 1.2 million people were working in one capacity or another for the world’s spy agencies. Lowell would see that, as the NEC reports, nations had turned much of their Cold War spy apparatus to economic espionage, including giant computer databases, word-activated eavesdropping scanners, spy satellites, and an almost unbelievable array of bugs and wiretaps.
Economic espionage against the United States breaks down into three major styles. Agents from China, Taiwan, and South Korea are aggressively targeting "present and former nationals working for U.S. companies and research institutions," according the NEC report. The second category is headed by France, which is said to prefer classic Cold War recruitment and technical operations, including bribery, discreet thefts, garbage searches, and aggressive wiretapping. Russia and Israel carry out similar spying with varying degrees of government sponsorship. Germany is described as planning to increase the number of its Federal Intelligence Service (BND) agents in Washington to improve its collection capabilities. Japan, which does not have a formal intelligence agency but sometimes collectively resembles one, falls into the third category. Japanese industry and private organizations gather "economic intelligence, occasionally including classified proprietary documents and data." The result is an exceptionally efficient spy network that is described as "not fully understood" by the United States.
The most aggressive operations against U.S. companies occur overseas, especially in home countries where spy agencies are freer to act and where, the NEC report notes, "government controlled national phone networks" and other electronic means can be used to slither inside company communications and data banks. The best place to recruit foreign nationals who work for U.S. companies overseas is in third countries, where "a host country’s counterintelligence services do not pose a serious barrier to effective foreign intelligence operations directed against U.S. targets. Furthermore, U.S. citizens tend to be more lax about security matters when living in countries perceived as friendly to the United States."
"Lax" is probably a polite way to describe the laid-back attitudes that Lowell might find if he wandered among his countrymen today. A recent study by the National Research Council found that one way Japanese businessmen collect information about developments within the U.S. aerospace industry—a major Japanese target today—is to get their U.S. counterparts to brag: "Ego comes into play as engineers try to impress their foreign contacts."
The sublime mismatch between war-trained spies and business people schooled to expect the proverbial "level playing field" has also become worrisome in Canada, where Chris MacMartin, coordinator of the technology transfer program for Canada’s Security Intelligence Service, says that of 500 companies queried, fully one-third brought up security problems. Many of them had discovered that people they had once trusted were harvesting company secrets for a foreign government.
"When you’re carrying over the family jewels and you’re traipsing across several countries who would crawl over broken glass to get what you’ve got in your briefcase, you will inevitably find that the government has far greater capability to do damaging things to you than your competitor," explains MacMartin. Naive businesspeople who entrust a document in their briefcase to the hotel safe might "just as well photocopy it and give it to the company [that competes with them], because that’s where it’s going," MacMartin adds.
Just how much espionage costs companies is hard to say. "We have seen damage in terms of lost jobs, lost contracts, and diminished contracts. We have spoken to companies who have had messages intercepted and computers penetrated," MacMartin admits. But nobody wants to talk openly about it. "Companies have very solid reasons not to make this public. They usually have shareholders who think that secrets are what make the company valuable. Invariably in all of these cases, somebody screwed up."
Canada is not about to point fingers at any specific country, but MacMartin says that 39 percent of the spy incidents occurred in Asia and another 30 percent in Western Europe.
U.S. companies aren’t much more talkative. An International Business Machines (IBM) representative told a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 1992 that the company had suffered losses "in the billions" from thefts of proprietary information, including thefts by unnamed government agents intent on stealing IBM’s software and other secrets for competitors in their country. Corning, Inc., complained of state-sponsored efforts to steal its fiber-optic technology. "It is very difficult for an individual corporation to counteract this activity. The resources of a corporation—even a large one such as Corning—are no match for espionage activities that are sanctioned and supported by foreign governments," explained J. E. Reisbeck, then an executive vice president of the company.
While the need seems obvious, the question of how to mobilize U.S. intelligence agencies to support and protect the U.S. economy has bobbed to the surface in Washington every few years since World War II. When the Truman administration assembled 20 top government officials for a secret meeting in the CIA’s cramped, makeshift administration building on the Mall in November 1950, they were told that because foreign economic intelligence was collected by 24 different agencies, many of which didn’t communicate with one another, there were "important gaps in the collective knowledge of the government." The turf battles involved in reassigning areas of responsibility in information gathering proved to be too difficult for this cabinet group, however, and a CIA committee was established to study the problem.
The issue came up again in 1970 when Nixon administration officials, shocked by Japan’s bold and wellaimed assault on the U.S. auto industry, told the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to suggest remedies. Gerard P. Burke, then PFIAB’s chief of staff, recalls that his four-man staff spent about a year studying the problem. A few organizational changes were made to bring economic officials onto policy-making boards in the intelligence community, but as Burke recalls, no one could find a way to address the real issue he had discovered: while the United States was tinkering with its organizational charts, the intelligence agencies of major allies, including the British, the French, the Swedes, and the Swiss, had begun providing direct support to their countries’ businesses. "We discussed it ad nauseam," Burke remembers. "We thought U.S. companies needed [support], but we didn’t think it should be provided by the U.S. government. There were obvious conflicts of interest."
Stansfield Turner, the retired navy admiral who took the helm of the CIA in 1977, during the Carter administration, pointed to the same problem. Beyond the Soviet Union, the major threat to the United States came from the economic sphere. "Goddammit," he remembers thundering once at a group of aides, "if [the economy] isn’t a national security matter, then what is!?"
But the aides had questions. Should you collect information for Ford and not General Motors? Had CIA agents signed up to risk their lives for a corporation? What about providing intelligence to a U.S. company that was partly owned by Japan? In the end, the aides’ skepticism prevailed. Since that debate in the late 1970s, CIA task forces have studied the issue two more times. Each study found a problem but backed away from practical solutions. Admiral Turner recently fired another salvo. One way to break out of this stalemate, he says, is simply to make for-eign espionage assaults on U.S. companies public. "That may aid U.S. corporations less than some would like, but it also can lessen an advantage foreign corporations have over American firms," he says.
In 1985, during the Reagan administration, Michael Sekora, a young physicist working in the Defense Intelligence Agency, became alarmed by moves being made by French, German, and Japanese intelligence operatives in the commercial arena. Some of them were busy collecting ideas from U.S. universities. Why not create a database to follow the development and flow of key technologies around the world, tapping the whole government for information? he suggested. President Reagan’s people liked Sekora’s idea and wanted the database and a small staff installed in the White House. The project was called Socrates. But the incoming Bush administration strangled Socrates in its crib. The project posed too many questions. "You can’t look at the Japanese, they said, because they’re our friends. You can only look at the Russians because they’re the bad guys. What we wanted to do was look at the technologies, regardless of who had them. We wanted to get to the bottom line truth, as did the philosopher," Sekora says.