By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
It’s any intelligence officer’s nightmare – watching human intelligence sources dry up in a short period of time. But that’s precisely what occurred in China between late 2010 to early 2012.
Several sources from the Obama administration and current and former intelligence officials recently told the New York Times that the CIA lost between 12 and 20 individuals who were providing intelligence to the U.S.
The Times said the “Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. 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.”
One Chinese official was shot in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a government building in a message to others who might have been working for the CIA, the Times reported.
When so many human sources disappear in less than two years it sets off an investigation into the cause of the intelligence breach. Counterintelligence officials are tasked with identifying the cause of the breach because such a turn of events doesn’t occur accidentally.
According to the Times, U.S. investigators were torn between the possibility of a mole in the CIA or concerns that the Chinese broke the communications code used by U.S. intelligence officials to correspond with their assets.
Unnamed current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as “one of the worst in decades.”
The damage is indeed difficult to underestimate. Many of those assets were operating inside Chinese government agencies, providing the CIA with vital intelligence on a whole host of Chinese activities.
These collection efforts help the U.S. craft policy over the long term. They also assist in preventing misunderstandings between the two governments as to each others intentions.
In the past, moles in the intelligence agency and the FBI created similar breaches leading to the death of U.S. assets. If those cases are any indication of the difficulties faced by investigators today, then this latest investigation will likely be a lengthy one. Indeed, five years after the counterintelligence investigation into the earlier cases began, the probe still has not been completed.
CIA Has Methods to Limit Damage Caused by Moles
There are measures the CIA can take to limit the damage. These measures include changing communication methods and meeting places or switching out personnel who might have had access to the collection program.
The first method is far simpler than the latter. It’s not uncommon to replace case officers who are handling an asset. But switching out officers across a collection program is more challenging because those who are transferred still have knowledge of the program of it.
In other words, an intelligence officer transferred out of a program could still provide information to a hostile intelligence service if he was indeed acting as a double agent. It’s accurate to say that the value of the intelligence gathered from this possible mole would diminish with time. But he could simply provide new information on other programs in his current assignment.
One individual who gained the attention of investigators is a former agency operative who had worked in the CIA’s China division. That individual was involved in the program and knew the identities of all the assets who were caught by Chinese officials. “But efforts to gather enough evidence to arrest him failed, and he is now living in another Asian country,” the Times said.
His location makes any future contacts profoundly more difficult. Investigating losses like this are difficult enough, but establishing the cause of this loss is absolutely necessary if the CIA is going to remain effective in collecting intelligence on China.