US seeks intelligence outreach to check China

Burns plans more resources to be placed in China — though recognising that it might be difficult, these would cover China through other countries ‘where China is active’. Last month, the sub-committee on intelligence and special operations of the US House of Representatives had already directed the Director of National Intelligence to explore the possibilities of expanding the ‘5 Eyes’ (US, Canada,UK,Australia and New Zealand) intelligence sharing to include India,South Korea,Japan and Germany.

US seeks intelligence outreach to check China

SPY THRILLER IN OFFING: CIA Director William Burns wants to galvanise intelligence gathering with the help of other countries to rein in Chinese ambitions. Reuters

Vappala Balachandran

Author and Columnist

MEDIA reports indicate attempts to re-energise American intelligence as a measure of strategic dominance. As a first step, an unprecedented top-secret cable was sent by Langley early in October to CIA’s global stations about the ‘troubling’ number of their agents being ‘neutralised’.

On October 6, CIA Director William J Burns messaged to his employees that in China, the United States was facing “our toughest geo-political test in a new era of great power rivalry”. Burns said in his public statement on October 7 that a new “China Mission Centre” and a “Transnational and Technology Mission” would be set up. The latter would identify new technologies for better intelligence collection and to counter the technical ability of adversaries to detect CIA operatives.

Interestingly, the first cable on the loss of CIA’s assets abroad through arrests or as “double agents” also mentions Pakistan besides Russia, China and Iran. In 2011, Pakistan stopped CIA’s drone operations from its Shamsi air base following NATO strikes on November 26, 2011, which mistakenly had killed 25 Pakistani soldiers. Complaints of losing intelligence help from Pakistan became louder after the Taliban captured Afghanistan, leaving no “eyes and ears” on the ground.

Israel, which had compensated for the loss of CIA assets in Iran, was also mentioned in the American media among troublesome “partners” for their intelligence gathering. This was after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “curtailed” intelligence sharing with the Biden administration, protesting at the possible restoration of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement. However, the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Washington DC and his meeting with US President Joe Biden on August 27 provided an opportunity to restore the traditional intelligence relationship, although Biden had clearly preferred “diplomacy first”. Yet, he was “ready to turn to other options” if that failed.

The first cable must be read with a The New York Times report (May 20, 2017) which gave startling details of CIA agents lost during 2010-12 when China “killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the CIA’s sources”. This was more than the dark days of Soviet penetration into CIA and FBI through the betrayals of Aldrich Ames (CIA, 1994) and Robert Hanssen (FBI, 2001).

Burns plans more resources to be placed in China — though recognising that it might be difficult, these would cover China through other countries “where China is active”. Last month, the sub-committee on intelligence and special operations of the US House of Representatives had already directed the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in their Bill 4350 to explore the possibilities of expanding the ‘5 Eyes’ (US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand) intelligence sharing to include India, South Korea, Japan and Germany. On October 5, 2021, Australian think tank Lowy Institute felt that India had “begun to take an interest” in this expansion.

China’s technical prowess was exhibited on June 4, 2015, when the Obama administration publicly disclosed a breach of four million federal employees’ data through a technical intrusion, suspected to be from China. This included personal files of thousands of individuals who had applied for security clearance from among scientists and even covert agents. This had jolted the US counterintelligence officials who were till then under the impression that China stole only intellectual property files.

The American media has also been quoting a recent book, The Recruiter — Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, by Douglas London, a 34-year-old CIA veteran, spelling out the reasons why so many assets were compromised. London says that the shift from traditional espionage which had marked the Cold War era to quick covert action and paramilitary operations from the late 1990s due to terrorism was one of the reasons for the poor tradecraft when case officers hurriedly recruited agents without a full background check.

The hurry with which Humam Khalil al Balaswi, a Jordanian doctor was recruited following President Obama’s call to defeat the al-Qaeda in April 2009, was an example. Balawi was spotted with the help of Jordanian secret service General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and sent to Pak tribal areas to infiltrate the al-Qaeda. None knew that he hailed from Zarqa, the town of al-Zarqawi, a known al-Qaeda leader. On December 30, 2009, he came to the CIA’s Camp Chapman at Khost, pretending to convey intelligence on Ayman al-Zawahiri. As he was a “known asset”, he was not searched. Balawi, who was wearing a suicide vest, blew himself up, killing seven CIA officials, the biggest loss since the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings.

In 2016, Reuters revealed declassified documents of the National Security Archives of the George Washington University, suggesting a strong possibility of Pakistani involvement in this bombing. It found that $200,000 were reportedly paid by the ISI to the Haqqani network to attack Camp Chapman to frustrate CIA activities in Afghanistan.

Another reason cited by intelligence experts is that the CIA’s skills at defeating preventive measures by hostile services had grown “rusty” after decades of focusing on terrorism threats, which resulted in quicker but unsafe covert communications. Growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and biometric technology, including facial recognition measures in target countries, have resulted in exposing CIA assets.

Simultaneously, the “back-to-back” sentencing of three former intelligence officers in 2019 revealed aggressive Chinese penetration. Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA employee (May1, 2019), Kevin Patrick Mallory, who had worked in the CIA and Défence Intelligence Agency (May 17, 2019) and Ron Hansen, a former Défense Intelligence official ( September 24, 2019) were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment for revealing classified information to China, including methods of communication with CIA assets.

Chinese intelligence does not follow classical Western espionage norms and hence, the difficulty in countering its methods. Two studies could be quoted: In 2020, Nick Eftimiades, an expert on Chinese intelligence operations, studied 595 cases and said that China uses ‘societal power’ for intelligence gathering by tweaking its policies, using all government organs.

This was also what French journalist Roger Faligot had found in his Chinese Spies — From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping (Hurst, London, 2019) which I had reviewed. It uses the tactics of Chinese snake-like fish “ba mu man” (eel with eight eyes) by blending with the landscape, clinging on to the rocks, and latching on to its prey.

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