The CIA had spent years carefully building a solid network of spies and sources in China, only to have the whole thing unravel between 2010 and 2012 when the Chinese government systematically dismantled it. The New York Times is reporting that current and former intelligence officials say that at least a dozen operatives were executed with several others imprisoned.
The agency now believes a mole was responsible. And they will be spending years repairing the damage to our ability to gain adequate intelligence in China.
Beijing killed at least a dozen CIA sources and imprisoned several others, former and current U.S. officials told The New York Times. One asset was reportedly shot in front of his coworkers. The systematic campaign largely did away with a CIA espionage network that took the U.S. years to build.
Intelligence coming out of China was at its best early in 2010, but by the end of the year, the flow had decreased. By 2011, the CIA realized that their sources were disappearing.
“The CIA considers spying in China one of its top priorities, but the country’s extensive security apparatus makes it exceptionally hard for Western spy services to develop sources there,” reports The New York Times, highlighting the significant damage caused by the eradication of intelligence assets.
Some officials think a mole tipped the Chinese off, revealing the identities of CIA sources. The FBI and CIA launched an investigation, code-named Honey Badger, into the situation. Investigators suspected a former agency operative who oversaw operations in China and decided to remain in Asia after he left the CIA. The man, a Chinese-American intelligence officer, left the CIA before the leaks began. He had access to the identities of key informants.
Other officials who talked to The New York Times suspect that China hacked the covert communications channel. Still others believe that American officers and their sources simply got careless at a time when Chinese spycraft was improving rapidly.
By 2013, the CIA had managed to blunt China’s elimination of intelligence assets, although it is unclear how the agency achieved this outcome.
China is particularly sensitive to the dangers of foreign espionage, but at the same time, it is highly aggressive in its own spy operations against other countries, especially the U.S.
No matter how it happened — and it could have been a combination of factors — our intelligence on China is at a low point at exactly the wrong time. It’s easy to forget that tensions in the South China Sea are still at a high level and it wouldn’t take much for the current standoff to erupt into a hot war. If that happened, we’d be at a huge disadvantage given our intelligence capabilities having been crippled.
China has been active in stealing secrets from the U.S.:
While China is determined to sabotage spy operations in country, it has been very active conducting espionage on foreign soil. For instance, a Chinese businessman named Su Bin, together with two Chinese agents, was responsible for the theft of important data on the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and other U.S. military programs.
Su Bin was sentenced to several years in prison last year.
The U.S. isn’t exactly dead in the water when it comes to gathering intel from China. Our national technical means, including various spy satellites and other high-tech wizardry, are second to none. But there is no substitute for human intel, or “Humint,” when it comes to gleaning the intent and understanding the motives of a foreign government.