By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
William Evanina, Director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), recently stated, “From the American Revolution to the cyber revolution, spies among us have caused lasting damage to our national security, and just as our adversaries and the threats we face continue to evolve, counterintelligence and security professionals…must evolve as well.”
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Following those remarks, Evanina stated that China is by far the most significant threat to the U.S. But it’s worth mentioning that Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, poses a significant risk as well. Writing in Politico, former NCSC Director Michelle Van Cleave lamented the lack of coordination across the U.S. intelligence community in offensive counterintelligence operations.
US Has Never Had a Strategic Mission to Disable Hostile Intelligence Services
Van Cleave noted, “Apart from the CIA’s approach to the KGB during the Cold War, American counterintelligence has never had a standing strategic mission of finding and disabling hostile intelligence services before they target the United States. As a result, U.S. counterintelligence is not wired to preempt.”
To put this in perspective, each year the FBI arrests or disrupts dozens of foreign intelligence operations in the U.S. That number pales in comparison to the thousands of operations annually directed against the U.S..
Currently, the FBI is the lead counterintelligence agency for hostile intelligence operations within the U.S., while the CIA handles counterintelligence operations abroad. This is admittedly an oversimplification; however, it is in keeping with the charters of both agencies. It is within this narrow definition that trouble arises and cuts to the heart of Van Cleave’s statement about the inability of U.S. counterintelligence to preempt the activities of hostile foreign intelligence services.
With the 2020 U.S. presidential elections inching closer, many of the same elements of foreign meddling found in 2016 are beginning to reappear. This demonstrates just how important it is to coordinate U.S. counterintelligence operations.
Beyond Election Malfeasance, China Poses a Multifaceted Threat
Beyond election malfeasance, China poses a multifaceted threat. Discussions of Chinese intelligence collection often revolve around Beijing’s nontraditional methods, yet China possesses a professional and capable intelligence apparatus.
Last month, the FBI arrested Xuehua Peng. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Peng was “acting as an illegal foreign agent in delivering classified United States national security information to officials of the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS).”
Peng’s is just one arrest among many that span the gambit of Chinese intelligence collection against the U.S. Chinese intelligence activities against the U.S. are more than just routine collection, they are an outright assault on the nation.
Beijing has been vocal about its goal to replace the U.S. as the leading global power, while Washington has been in denial about the challenge. Thus, we need a unified counterintelligence approach if we are to disrupt and disband Chinese espionage operations.
There Is Little to Persuade China to End Its Spying on the US
With the number of Chinese spies arrested in the United States, it appears that the U.S. denial period has ended. But challenges remain. Currently, there is little to persuade China to end its spying on the U.S. because Beijing does not face any repercussions in the intelligence sphere.
In addition to China’s aggressive posture, Russia daily targets the U.S. in the cyber-realm because there is no U.S. pushback. Granted, Washington has used tools to target these two nations outside the realm of intelligence, but those tools haven’t had the desired effect. That makes a comprehensive and aggressive counterintelligence posture all the more necessary.
If the U.S. wants to slow the bleeding from these clandestine attacks — which cost the U.S. an estimated $600 billion annually — then it’s time to provide the U.S. intelligence community with the counterintelligence tools, resources, and leadership to adequately meet the threat.