In This Review

War by Other Means: Economic Espionage in America
War by Other Means: Economic Espionage in America
By John J. Fialka
W. W. Norton, 1997, 242 pp.

The author's thesis is that the American economy is being undermined by foreign "spies" seeking practical knowledge from and about the United States. The book contains many good, well-written war stories drawn from journalistic accounts, court records, and interviews. It makes the case that many foreigners -- especially Chinese, Japanese, Russians, French, and Israelis -- are indeed trying to gather information about the United States, that some of this gathering is shady or illegal, and that some of the information in the hands of foreign competitors could damage the interests of American firms.

Where the author, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, goes wrong is in his grand generalizations and the big picture they represent, as in his hyperbolic analogy between foreign (not necessarily official) information gathering and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He suggests that foreign spying can undermine U.S. competitiveness in the world market, a proposition that gives too little weight to, and reflects too little confidence in, the great innovative capacity and flexibility of the American economy. The author discovers, to his evident horror, that American universities disseminate information, sometimes even valuable information, and sometimes to foreigners. He overlooks that much of American success rests on American openness, and indeed that many U.S. firms earn their living by selling information, sometimes embodied in products, sometimes not.

No doubt U.S. firms should be more security-conscious, and this book serves a useful purpose by drawing attention to systematic attempts by others to gather information, both open and proprietary. But wholesale adoption of the author's information-restrictive perspective would do far more damage to the American economy than has the information that foreigners have gathered.