China’s kill-off of spy net­work con­founds U.S.

Dam­age and de­bate over how it hap­pened con­tinue years af­ter a CIA source wipe­out

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD REPORT -

WASH­ING­TON >> The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­man­tled CIA 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. Cur­rent and former U.S. of­fi­cials de­scribed the in­tel­li­gence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scram­ble in Wash­ing­ton’s in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies to con­tain the fall­out, but in­ves­ti­ga­tors were bit­terly di­vided over the cause. Some were con­vinced that a mole within the CIA had be­trayed the United States. Oth­ers be­lieved that the Chi­nese had hacked the covert sys­tem the CIA used to com­mu­ni­cate with its for­eign sources. Years later, that de­bate re­mains un­re­solved. But there was no dis­agree­ment about the dam­age. From the fi­nal weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, ac­cord­ing to former U.S. of­fi­cials, the Chi­nese killed at least a dozen of the CIA’s sources. Ac­cord­ing to three of the of­fi­cials, 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. Still oth­ers were put in jail. All told, the Chi­nese killed or im­pris­oned 18 to 20 of the CIA’s sources in China, ac­cord­ing to two former se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials, ef­fec­tively un­rav­el­ing a net­work that had taken years to build. Assess­ing the fall­out from an ex­posed spy op­er­a­tion can be dif­fi­cult, but the episode was con­sid­ered par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing. The num­ber of U.S. as­sets lost in China, of­fi­cials said, ri­valed those lost in the Soviet Union and Rus­sia dur­ing the be­tray­als of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, for­merly of the CIA and the FBI, who di­vulged in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions to Moscow for years. The pre­vi­ously un­re­ported episode shows how suc­cess­ful the Chi­nese were in dis­rupt­ing U.S. spy­ing ef­forts and steal­ing se­crets years be­fore a well-pub­li­cized breach in 2015 gave Bei­jing ac­cess to thou­sands of gov­ern­ment per­son­nel records, in­clud­ing in­tel­li­gence con­trac­tors. 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. The CIA de­clined to com­ment.

Ten cur­rent and former U.S. of­fi­cials de­scribed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they did not want to be iden­ti­fied dis­cussing the in­for­ma­tion. The first signs of trou­ble emerged in 2010. At the time, the qual­ity of the CIA’s in­for­ma­tion about the in­ner work­ings of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment was the best it had been for years, the re­sult of re­cruit­ing sources deep in­side the bu­reau­cracy in Bei­jing, four former of­fi­cials said. Some were Chi­nese cit­i­zens who the CIA be­lieved had be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s cor­rup­tion.

But by the end of the year, the flow of in­for­ma­tion be­gan to dry up. By early 2011, se­nior agency of­fi­cers re­al­ized they had a prob­lem: As­sets in China, one of their most pre­cious re­sources, were dis­ap­pear­ing.

The FBI and the CIA opened a joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion run by top coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials at both agen­cies. Work­ing out of a se­cret of­fice in North­ern Vir­ginia, they be­gan an­a­lyz­ing ev­ery op­er­a­tion be­ing run in Bei­jing. One former se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion had been code-named Honey Badger.

The mole hunt even­tu­ally ze­roed in on a former agency op­er­a­tive who had worked in the CIA’s di­vi­sion over­see­ing China, be­liev­ing he was most likely re­spon­si­ble for the crip­pling dis­clo­sures. But ef­forts to gather enough ev­i­dence to ar­rest him failed, and he is now liv­ing in an­other Asian coun­try, cur­rent and former of­fi­cials said. There was good rea­son to sus­pect an in­sider, some former of­fi­cials say. Around that time, Chi­nese spies com­pro­mised Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency sur­veil­lance in Tai­wan by in­fil­trat­ing Tai­wanese in­tel­li­gence, a U.S. part­ner, ac­cord­ing to two former of­fi­cials. And the CIA had dis­cov­ered Chi­nese op­er­a­tives in the agency’s hir­ing pipe­line, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials and court doc­u­ments.

Those who re­jected the mole the­ory at­trib­uted the losses to sloppy U.S. trade­craft at a time when the Chi­nese were be­com­ing bet­ter at mon­i­tor­ing U.S. es­pi­onage ac­tiv­i­ties in the coun­try. By 2013, the FBI and the CIA con­cluded that China’s suc­cess in iden­ti­fy­ing CIA agents had been blunted — it is not clear how — but the dam­age had been done. The CIA has tried to re­build its net­work of spies in China, of­fi­cials said, an ex­pen­sive and time-con­sum­ing ef­fort led at one time by the former chief of the East Asia Di­vi­sion.

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