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National Security & Defense

A Sad Tale of a Chinese Counterintelligence Triumph

From the first Morning Jolt of the week.

A Sad Tale of a Chinese Counterintelligence Triumph

At some point during the Trump administration, we’re going to hear about something going terribly wrong in the intelligence community. It’s just the way it is; this is exceptionally difficult work, going up against relentless and insidious enemies. The list of recent spy scandals is long and depressing: Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, the Convicted Spy Formerly Known As Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden… This isn’t even mentioning the Office of Personnel Management hack or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s e-mails…

We have embarrassing and frustrating setbacks in our intelligence work under both Republican and Democratic administrations. There is no policy that can eliminate the motives of spies, turncoats, and traitors, usually summarized as money, ideology, coercion and ego.

We had another huge setback to our intelligence efforts during the Obama years that we are only learning about now.

The Chinese government systematically dismantled CIA spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.

Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.

But there was no disagreement about the damage. From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, according to former American officials, the Chinese killed at least a dozen of the C.I.A.’s sources. According to three of the officials, one was shot in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a government building — a message to others who might have been working for the C.I.A.

The New York Times quotes “ten current and former American officials described the investigation on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing the information.”

Someone might be grumbling, “argh, if this so secret, why is it being leaked to the Times?”

Dwight Eisenhower once offered the counterintuitive advice, “if you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” The effort to determine how China found America’s spies was a private problem; now it’s a public problem. Making a secret problem public is one way to make that problem a higher priority; secret problems are easier to ignore. Also, if there’s a mole within the agency reporting to China – which is only one of several theories offered in the article — it’s probably best that everyone involved know there’s a mole. The paranoia and reluctance to share information about assets might save someone’s life.

There’s marginal good news. “By 2013, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. concluded that China’s success in identifying C.I.A. agents had been blunted — it is not clear how — but the damage had been done.” Of course, if America’s spy agencies don’t know how the information leaked the first time, there’s no guarantee it won’t be leaked a second time.

Sounds like a job of Blackford Oakes. 

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