From China With Love and the US spying game

US intelligence is starting from scratch as it tries to untangle the complicated web of Chinese intelligence

For decades, the United States intelligence community, namely the CIA, focused on the Soviet Union. So did its key ally, the United Kingdom.

Who can forget, the titanic battle between suave agent James Bond and Spectre assassin, Donald ‘Red’ Grant, on the Balkan train in From Russia With Love?

“Red wine with fish,” says 007, “I should have known.”

And, perhaps, we too should have known, that none of this was real. It was complete spy fiction, from the incredible mind of none other than the former British intelligence officer and legendary author, Ian Fleming.

Yet, it was a reflection of life in the Cold War. The Soviet Union versus The United States and the UK’s Mi6. Them against us.

Fast forward to today, where the tables have deftly turned – a pivot to China is underway. But the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA has a lot of catching up to do, and China has many advantages in this so-called, new Cold War.

According to a report in the New York Times, the Chinese government systematically dismantled CIA spying operations in the country around 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering for years to come.

Even the Soviet Union’s SMERSH unit (“Death to Spies”) never had that much success in one go, even with the treasonous Kim Philby as head of Mi6’s Section 5.

Experts say, it was one of the worst intelligence breaches in decades and it set off a scramble in Washington’s security agencies to contain the fallout.

Covert system

Was there a Chinese mole within the CIA? Did China hack the covert system the CIA used to communicate with agents? Did Chinese spies compromise the National Security Agency in Taiwan? To this day, at least publicly, those questions remain unresolved.

But there was no disagreement about the damage. 

According to the New York Times sources, 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 CIA. Play for the other side, and we will find you, and kill you.

No remorse. No prisoners. It’s a deadly game, and the rules have changed.

In the end, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the CIA’s sources, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build, the New York Times reported.

Yet as intelligence enters the “new epoch,” US think tanks, military and intel officials, and the Pentagon, are all wrestling with the effort to close the gap. Clearly, China has won the intelligence war. Up to now.

Speaking virtually at the recent Cipher Brief Threat Conference at a resort in Sea Island, Georgia, former CIA director, Michael Hayden, helped set the tone as he shared the advice he gave to the current CIA director, William Burns, NPR reported.

“First of all, you’ve got to go to China. And then second of all, you’ve got to go to China. And the third one is, you’ve got to go to China. And he said, ‘OK, I got it,'” Hayden recounted.

“I call this entering the third epoch of intelligence,” spymaster Sue Gordon told the conference.

The CIA is struggling to cope with China’s spy network. Image: File

In a series of high-level jobs, Gordon provided intelligence briefs to five of the past six presidents before retiring in 2019 as the principal deputy director of national intelligence, NPR reported.

“We kind of woke up out of our counterterrorism stupor to realize that the world had become digital and that we hadn’t been focusing on all the things we needed to,” she said. 

“The rise of China happened during those years, and now you see us talking about Great Power competition.”

It appears that CIA Director Burns has embraced his advice, the NPR report said. After reviewing the CIA’s priorities, his first big move involved announcing the establishment of a China Mission Center to focus on the country seen as the principal US rival.

David Cohen, the number two man at the CIA, told the conference this means more resources will be devoted to China. Different parts of the agency will more closely coordinate their work, and Burns will host a weekly meeting devoted entirely to that country.

“What we’ve come to realize is that we need to enhance and synchronize our efforts around China,” he said.

The US intelligence community wants to know what Xi is thinking about Taiwan, where tensions have been rising. China’s test of a hypersonic missile caught the Pentagon by surprise – a so-called “Sputnik moment.” And there’s the ongoing race for cutting-edge technologies.

Yet critics say these constant warnings posed by China can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, inflaming tensions with Beijing and leading the US to overlook other potential flashpoints, the NPR report said.

China Intelligence Agency

To this, CIA man Cohen responded: “I will hasten to add that we are the Central Intelligence Agency. We are not the China Intelligence Agency.”

Still, the conference was a vivid demonstration of how the US intelligence community is making a massive pivot to the world’s second-largest economy – the new enemy. Current and former officials say that no country – not even the Soviet Union at its peak – spied on the US in such a comprehensive way as China now does.

“They’ve got more people than we could ever dream of having. They are going to collect as much data as they can get, put it in a big data pool and use artificial intelligence, use machine processing to then target us,” Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff, told NPR.

“I mean, it is scary,” he added.

China pursues traditional spying targets – government and military secrets. But Beijing wants much more. It is unique in its sweeping, systematic approach to gathering cutting-edge technology from US companies and universities.

“Our system is really set up to fight a nation-state. It focuses on things that are illegal, things that are a direct military application. What we’re seeing now [is] the focus in academia, in commerce,” said Anna Puglisi, a former intelligence official who focused on China, NPR reported.

“It’s a very, very different threat than we had in the past,” added Puglisi, now at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. 

Academia, in particular, has an ethos of sharing and is often reluctant to impose restrictions.

China’s cyber spies are a clear and present danger. Photo: File

“We do get a lot of pushback on that because [academics] will say, ‘Well, this is open research,'” Puglisi said. “And that is so true. We don’t want to stem that. But what’s key is our academics should have the choice of when they share their information and when they don’t.”

China had more than 300,000 students at US universities, far more than any other country, before the Covid-19 pandemic reduced the numbers. Many are involved in important high-tech research. Many are also innocent researchers, caught up in the current anti-Chinese American paranoia – but some aren’t.

And it doesn’t take an anti-communist crusader like J. Edgar Hoover to figure that out.

Recent espionage cases provide just a small glimpse of the growing intelligence war that is playing out in the shadows of the US-China struggle for global dominance, and of the aggressiveness and skillfulness with which China is waging it, The Atlantic reported.

As China advances economically and technologically, its spy services are keeping pace. Their intelligence officers are more sophisticated, the tools at their disposal are more powerful, and they are engaged in what appears to be an intensifying array of espionage operations.

Beijing’s efforts aimed at former US intelligence officers are just one part of a Chinese campaign. US officials also point to cyberattacks against government databases and companies, stealing trade secrets from the private sector, and using venture-capital investment to acquire sensitive technology.

“What you have is an intelligence officer sitting in Beijing. And he can send out 30,000 emails a day. And if he gets 300 replies, that’s a high-yield, low-risk intelligence operation,” William Evanina, America’s top counterintelligence official, told The Atlantic

China will sometimes wait years to target former officials. “We have to mitigate that damage for sometimes a decade,” Evanina said.

Global cyber espionage

According to CPO Magazine, Palo Alto Networks Unit 42 researchers discovered that a hacking group with ties to China breached at least nine organizations in a global cyber espionage campaign.

The report indicated that attackers indiscriminately targeted about 370 organizations in the defense, healthcare, education, technology and energy sectors.

Another key point is that China is a notoriously hard target for the US to spy against because of its tight internal security and ubiquitous surveillance, NPR reported.

“You can’t flip a switch and suddenly have a stable of Chinese assets, great penetrations of the inner sanctum of government,” Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer who now runs the Intelligence Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told NPR.

“You have to develop officers who know the language, the culture, and that can establish deep relationships of trust that are required to do agent operations,” he added.

Decades ago, Chinese intelligence officers were largely seen as relatively amateurish, even sloppy, a former US intelligence official said. Usually, their English was poor. They were clumsy. They used predictable covers. It was laughable. 

In recent years, however, they have become more sophisticated – they can come across as suave, personable and even genteel. Just like ‘Red’ Grant.

Their manners can be fluid. Their English is usually good. “Now this is the norm,” the former official said, speaking with The Atlantic on condition of anonymity. “They really have learned quite a bit and grown-up.”

Red wine with fish? Don’t even think about it.

Sources: NPR, New York Times, The Atlantic, CPO Magazine