The Wall Street Journal recently covered an article about the CIA struggling to rebuild spy networks in China.
This week, a lengthy investigative piece titled “American spies confront a new, formidable China” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The report outlines the challenges and setbacks facing the CIA in its efforts to spy on China, despite the Biden administration’s designation of the nation as a top “pacing threat.”
One of the report’s central themes is the statement made by a former US intelligence officer, which the Wall Street Journal quoted, “We have no real insight into leadership plans and intentions in China at all.” The paper examines the circumstances that led to the current situation, including the CIA’s disastrous experience in China approximately ten years ago and its ongoing efforts to reconstruct its network within the strictly regulated Communist surveillance state.
The 2012 incident is related to reports that scores of US agents were apprehended in China without authorization. Presumably, the discovery of a significant purported CIA network served as a main impetus for President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, since Beijing’s government corruption left it vulnerable to attacks by Western intelligence services. Between 2010 and 2012, there were reports of the imprisonment of dozens of CIA assets and the execution of others. According to a 2018 Foreign Policy article, 30 CIA agents were reportedly apprehended. The report further went on to explain that the spy ring’s discovery was primarily the result of a malfunctioning communication system.
In a rare public declaration made last summer, CIA officials confirmed that the agency has been actively working to reconstruct its surveillance networks within China. It was thought that after 2012, human intelligence was especially impaired. “We’ve made progress, and we’re working very hard over the past few years to ensure that we have strong human intelligence capability to complement what we can acquire through other methods,” CIA Director William Burns stated in July of last year at the Aspen Security Forum.
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According to recent sources, the United Kingdom’s SAS (Special Air Service) has conducted secret British military operations in Lebanon, including training aimed at rescuing Britons in West Asia.
“We are approaching the PRC as a global priority, more than doubling the budget resources devoted to the China mission over the past three years, and establishing the China Mission Center as CIA’s only single country mission center to coordinate the full agency’s efforts on this issue,” Burns said in a recent quote and updated statement to the Journal.
Burns continued: “Even as we are balancing multiple priorities including ongoing conflicts, we remain intensely engaged on the strategic long-term challenge posed by the PRC.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Chinese official media reacted, denouncing Washington as the real “source of chaos” in the global system.
Here are a few more significant quotations and highlights (subheadings by ZH) from the recently published WSJ report.
Beijing’s spycatchers and CIA’s monumental blunder
“Beijing’s spycatchers all but blinded the U.S. in China a decade ago when they systematically rounded up a network of Chinese agents working for the CIA. As many as two dozen assets providing information to the U.S. were executed or imprisoned, among them high-ranking Chinese officials.”
Other geopolitical flashpoints have complicated the CIA’s China focus
“The pivot hasn’t been simple. Hamas’s surprise Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have demanded White House attention and intelligence resources, complicating CIA Director William Burns’s drive to ensure China is the top long-term priority. One agency veteran said that handling the two crises, while keeping a sustained focus on Beijing, will test the agency’s agility.”
Vast majority of China US intel today comes from signals/electronic snooping
“Today, U.S. spy satellites closely monitor China’s military deployments and modernization plans, while cyber and eavesdropping tools scoop up vast swaths of Chinese communications. Beyond that, U.S. knowledge of Xi’s plans comes mostly from inference and from parsing his frequent public statements, officials said.
China is a much tougher intelligence target than it was a decade ago, when the agents were lost. Xi’s security-first state employs Orwellian surveillance systems that vastly complicate spy operations inside the country. And U.S. intelligence must track China’s progress in fields as disparate as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology.
…The vast majority of U.S. intelligence on China now comes from electronic snooping—intercepting phone calls, emails and every other form of digital communication, the current and former officials indicated. Such signals intelligence can rarely replace human spies in divining an adversary’s true intentions or weaknesses, officials say.”
Leveraging corruption for human intel
“The CIA leveraged endemic corruption in the upper reaches of the Communist Party and government ministries to recruit dozens of officials as paid agents, former officials familiar with the events said. But in a catastrophic setback, this network was obliterated as China caught the traitors in its midst one by one.
A flaw in the CIA’s covert communications with its agents, exploited by Beijing, is the suspected cause of the compromise, former officials said. The details of what went wrong aren’t publicly known, and it is unclear if anyone at the agency was held accountable.”
“Horrendous. Horrendous. Horrendous,” a former senior U.S. official said of the losses in China. “And I have doubts about whether there’s been much of a recovery since then.”
China has ramped up its own spying in America
“China also ramped up its own human espionage, often using social media sites such as LinkedIn to contact and recruit former U.S. intelligence officials. Its successes included Kevin Patrick Mallory, a former CIA officer who had become deeply in debt and sold secrets for cash, including the identities of U.S. intelligence officers due to travel to China. Mallory was convicted in 2018.
In August, the Justice Department revealed the arrest of two U.S. Navy sailors charged with providing military information to China. Both were U.S. naturalized citizens born in China.”
Arnaud Bertrand, a regional expert and observer of China, provides a different perspective on the recent WSJ report.
Xi’s anticorruption campaign was presumably sparked in part by their discovery and dismantling of this CIA network in 2012, when they realized how deeply they might be penetrated. To be added to the already VERY lengthy list of US policies toward China that have severely backfired.
Funny how the WSJ suddenly complains that the US has “no real insight into leadership plans” as if this were unusual; after all, shouldn’t this be the norm? After all, nations ought to be independent, free to decide for themselves in private and without intervention from outside parties.
International law requires this! Regretfully, only China appears to be doing that in reality these days. I’m still waiting on Europe to make the US responsible for Snowden’s disclosures that they essentially bug European politicians regularly.