On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned in Brief, “The Indian Assassination Plot,” Preet talked with former DOJ official and CAFE veteran John Carlin about the recent indictment of an Indian national for attempting to hire a hitman to kill a U.S. citizen and a Sikh separatist in New York. The dramatic charges – and particularly the allegations that the Indian government had a hand in the foiled plot, as well as a similar, successful assassination of a Sikh separatist in Canada in September – have the potential to deeply upset India’s relationship with the West. In 1984, another American ally, Taiwan, was accused of being involved in the murder of a prominent Chinese-American journalist and critic, Henry Liu, in a case that illustrates both the personal pain and the geopolitical risk of targeted killings.
Fortunately, there are not many ready post-World War II historical examples of American allies orchestrating attacks on Americans on U.S. soil. Some near-parallels come to mind: In March 2021, I wrote a Time Machine column looking at the 1976 killing by agents of Chilean dictator Auguste Pinochet of opposition leader Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. And on Stay Tuned, Preet and Carlin also detailed the failed 2011 plot by an Iranian agent to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, in America. Neither Letelier nor al-Jubeir, however, were U.S. citizens, nor is Iran an American ally.
I took to the New York Public Library’s online historical newspaper archive and searched “on American soil” and “assassination.” The search led me to the case of Henry Liu.
Liu gained prominence as a reporter in the 1960s for the Taiwan Daily News. He immigrated to the United States with his wife Helen in 1967, and the two became citizens in 1973. Around the same time, Liu began publishing articles exploring the often-brutal rise of controversial Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-Kuo. Liu published an unflattering biography of the secretive Chiang in 1975. He included fresh reporting about Chiang’s various power grabs, including his supposed central involvement in the 1957 “May 24 incident,” in which Taiwanese rioters burned the American embassy after the U.S. released an American soldier suspected of killing a Taiwanese citizen.
In the early 1980s, he began work on another critical biography of a powerful Taiwanese political figure, K.C. Wu, who was once a close ally of President Chiang’s father and Taiwan’s long-serving first President Chiang Kai-Shek.
By this time, the Lius had settled in Daly City, a suburb immediately south of San Francisco. In addition to his political writing, Liu ran two gift shops, including one in the tourist-heavy Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco.
On the morning of October 15th, 1984, as Liu was loading curios into his car to bring to his shop, two gunmen who rode up on bicycles shot and killed him in the garage of his home.
By the end of 1984, the FBI had uncovered that the orchestrator of the murder was Chen Chi-li, the head of the United Bamboo gang, a powerful network of Taiwanese gangsters. Chen was arrested for the crime in Taiwan. In January 1985, the American press reported that Chen had left behind a tape-recorded confession with gang contacts in Houston. The tape, which Chen’s allies gave to the FBI, alleged that the Military Intelligence Bureau of the Taiwanese government – known as the Kuomintang or the Guamindong – had ordered the hit on Liu to stop his reporting on the government’s leaders.
An international incident was beginning to emerge.
Despite the disturbing implications of a U.S. ally assassinating an American in California, the U.S. media reaction to the killing – even after Chen’s tape emerged – was somewhat muted. The Reagan administration, seemingly wary of alienating Taiwan, was also largely silent.
Two Congressman stepped in to attract public and political attention to the murder. Democratic New York Representative Stephen Solarz, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, began organizing a hearing to highlight Taiwan’s seeming role in the assassination.
Meanwhile, Norman Mineta, a California Democratic congressman of Japanese descent who oversaw a district near Liu’s home, started a pressure campaign to encourage Attorney General William French Smith to take a more active role in the investigation.
On February 7th, 1985, Solarz’s Subcommittee converged for its hearing, “The Murder of Henry Liu.” The full text is available on Google Books. Mineta, the first witness, offered a forceful indictment testimony, arguing that the milquetoast press response and the outright silence from President Reagan smacked not only of a cowardice toward confronting Taiwan, but also of a racial double standard. Mineta imagined how the President would have responded to the killing of a Polish-American or Iranian-American journalist in the U.S. by government agents of Poland or Iran:
Led by an appropriately outraged press there would be an outcry to demand justice. The national outcry would be enormous. Does anyone doubt that the President would take to the airwaves to denounce such an act? Does anyone question that issues would be raised at the highest levels of the State Department, the Justice Department, or the White House? Would not this story be front page news? Yet an American of Asian ancestry is killed and this has not happened.
He also argued that the Reagan administration’s quickness to condemn terrorism in other nations had suddenly vanished when the target was at home and the perpetrators were strategic allies:
I urge this Subcommittee to send a signal that the time has come to put an end to the hypocrisy that condemns terrorism against U.S. citizens abroad, but turns a blind eye to it here at home when opposing such terrorism puts us at odds with our so-called friends. We cannot allow Taiwan to be a safe haven for those who murder U.S. citizens.
Mineta ended his testimony with a plea to put the full pressure of the American justice system on the Taiwanese actors responsible for the killing:
Let me emphasize my deep concern with the apparent freedom with which agents of the Taiwanese government have operated within our country. To put it more bluntly, I am sick and tired of seeing foreign agents come to this country, do their dirty work, and then run back to their home countries and claim protection of that nation’s laws. Surely acts of violence against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil should be within the U.S.. Law. To kill an American and then claim the protection of a foreign nation’s laws is behavior that dishonors that nation.
Helen Liu spoke next. She gave a detailed biography of her fallen husband, and argued that his truth-telling put him in a pantheon of towering investigative reporters – and also put him in the crosshairs of a vindictive regime:
I believe that my husband was killed by the Taiwan government because he was not just another journalist or writer. Many people have compared Henry’s work to that of William Shirer, Theodore White and Louis Fischer. Henry’s work was widely published and read all throughout Asia, in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and in Taiwan, despite repeated government efforts to suppress it.
Even as Mineta and Liu offered searing invectives against the extrajudicial killing, however, some on the Subcommittee argued that protecting Taiwan indeed trumped to some degree the human rights concerns over Liu’s murder. New York Republican Representative Gerald Solomon, a noted Cold Warrior and passionate Reagan supporter, argued that no criticism of Taiwan should leave out the abuses of the real American enemy, the Soviet Union:
I have heard no opening statement of comments criticizing the KGB and their continuing espionage and spy activities here in Washington, in my State of New York, in the United Nations, that spy-infested agency up there, and everywhere else throughout this country. I just want to say to try and change the tone here because it seems that Taiwan, the official Republic of China Government, was criticized as not being cooperative in some way.
The Subcommittee hearing – whatever Solomon’s reservations – broke through the media logjam. On March 3rd, CBS’s 60 Minutes offered a 15-minute segment on the killing. Correspondent Diane Sawyer interviewed the Daly City police, Helen Liu, and Congressman Solarz, laying out the basic facts of the case. A scratchy VHS of the segment is available on YouTube.
In a powerful moment, Sawyer asked the widowed Liu about whether her husband feared for his life due to his politically-sensitive output: “Was he afraid? Did he worry?” Liu responded by arguing that her husband’s beliefs in American freedoms had kept him feeling secure:
No, not at all. He would always say, ‘This is America,’ they wouldn’t do anything to him here.
And Solarz argued that the unfurling of the precise responsibility of the Taiwanese government was secondary to the basic fact that their intelligence network had ordered the killing of an American:
Henry Liu was not just killed by some members of the Bamboo gang who got it into their heads for their own purposes to blow him away. They were retained, commissioned, instructed, and dispatched to the United States by the Bureau of Military Intelligence for the purpose, in my judgment, of silencing Henry Liu by ending his life. And that’s murder. And that’s assassination. And it’s not acceptable. And it was set in motion by the authorities on Taiwan. And I don’t think it really matters much to what degree all of the members of the cabinet or the Politburo or the Guomindang knew about this or approved it. A powerful, responsible, important, leading official of the Taiwanese intelligence agencies was instrumentally involved in the whole affair. And that means the government of Taiwan was involved in the affair.
Even as Solarz argued that any Taiwanese government involvement in Liu’s killing was worthy of a strong American response, evidence began to mount that brought the murder’s planning pretty close to the top. As 1985 progressed, Chiang Hsiao-wu, President Chiang’s second son, came under increasing scrutiny for his potential involvement in the assassination, effectively torpedoing his political career. The Taiwanese legal system ultimately imprisoned Chen, two other members of the United Bamboo gang, and three intelligence officials.
While the facts are still crystalizing with regard to the Indian government’s involvement in the recent foiled plot, the sensitive balancing act in the American response between geopolitical priorities, appropriate punishment, and freedom of expression is decidedly underway.
For more on the murder of Henry Liu, check out David E. Kaplan’s 1992 book Fires of the Dragon: Politics, Murder, and the Kuomintang.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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