A former CIA officer suspected of helping China identify the US spy agency's informants was arrested at JFK International Airport on Monday on charges of unlawful retention of national defense information, according to the Department of Justice.
Many of the informants were killed in a systematic dismantling of the CIA’s spy network in China starting in 2010 that was one of the American government’s worst intelligence failures in recent years, several former intelligence officials have said.
Ironically, some of the same problems cited this week as contributors to this intelligence disaster were the same problems cited several years ago when the CIA’s intelligence network in Lebanon collapsed.
Which raises the question, has the CIA learned anything? And, what is their problem?
We will try to look at these two questions.
The arrest of the former agent, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, capped an intense FBI investigation that began around 2012 after the C.I.A. began losing its informants in China. Mr. Lee was at the center of this mole hunt.
However, some former intelligence officials have also argued that the spy network was been crippled by a combination of Lee’s actions, as well as sloppy tradecraft by agency officers in China. The charge of sloppy tradecraft by CIA agents is reminiscent of the same charges made against CIA officers in Lebanon 7 years ago.
According to court documents, Lee, a Hong Kong resident, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007 as a case officer. Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen and an Army veteran. He worked in a variety of overseas offices and was trained in surveillance detection, recruiting and handlings assets and handling classified material, among other things.
Mr. Lee was apprehended at Kennedy International Airport and charged in federal court in Northern Virginia with the unlawful retention of national defense information.
FBI agents investigating him searched his luggage during a pair of hotel stays, and found two small books with handwritten notes that contained classified information.
Prosecutors said that in the books, he had written down details about meetings between CIA informants and undercover agents, as well as their real names and phone numbers.
Using this information, about 20 CIA informants were killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government, including one who was reputedly shot outside his work and his body left on the ground. The extent to which the informant network was unraveled by the Chinese was reported last year by The New York Times. The Times said it was a devastating setback for the CIA that equaled the Aldrich Ames affair a few decades ago.
One of the US spies was an aide to Chinese Vice Minister Lu Zhongwei. The aide was taken into custody sometime between January and March 2012 after the ministry became alarmed over repeated incidents of Chinese agents being compromised in the United States.
The ministry's own investigations found the aide had been working for the CIA for years, divulging information about China's overseas spy network in the nation's worst espionage scandal for two decades, the Times added.
But, it isn’t just Chinese intelligence that is managing to penetrate the CIA. A few years ago, Hezbollah and Lebanese intelligence services rolled up the CIA’s agent network in Lebanon. And, to demonstrate that they hadn’t learned anything from the disaster, the CIA badly underestimated ISIS’s strength in the next few years.
Just as bad, when the CIA decided to take ISIS seriously, they responded less like an intelligence agency and more like a military organization carrying out air operations.
These appear to be the two biggest problems at the CIA; bad tradecraft and a tendency to want to solve problems with military strength.
How the CIA has gone “off the track”
Despite the intelligence reforms that were supposed to improve Americans intelligence community after the World Trade Center attack, the CIA has evolved from an intelligence agency and is acting more like a second Department of Defense – a role it carried out in the Vietnam War and which nearly destroyed it.
Obviously intelligence agencies are called upon to carryout a variety of missions from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations. However, in the past, the CIA has best focused on analysis and developing the high technology for intelligence gathering.
Covert military operations were left to the US Special Forces.
There has been a reason for that. When the CIA has been heavily involved in paramilitary operations, it has shifted resources from intelligence gathering, tradecraft, and analysis to focus on the paramilitary. The result obviously is a decline in the agency’s abilities in these other fields. This was seen in the 1960s as CIA officers were shifted from Soviet and North Korean fields to help with the expansion of the Vietnam branch. While the shift helped in Vietnam, it blinded it to Soviet and North Korean activities.
Tradecraft, Ideology, and Paramilitary Operations
American intelligence was shocked in December 2011 with the breaking up of the American spy ring in Lebanon. Apparently, the CIA had forgotten the basics of being an intelligence organization.
According to reports in the Los Angeles Times, the CIA operatives who ran the spy ring practiced poor spy craft. “According to the source, CIA case officers met a series of Lebanese informants at a local Pizza Hut, allowing Hezbollah and Lebanese authorities to identify who was helping the CIA.” It appeared that, “the former CIA station chief dismissed an email warning that some of his Lebanese agents could be identified because they used cellphones to call only their CIA handlers and no one else.”
“In 2010, U.S. counterintelligence officials determined that the CIA's Lebanese agents could be traced the same way, the source said. But the station chief allegedly ignored the warning,” the LA Times article continued.
This was a critical American intelligence failure since Lebanon is close to Syria and Israel, and a source for intelligence on several targeted groups.
While it’s easy to blame poor tradecraft for all of the failure, the CIA’s model for penetrating today’s terrorist organizations is obsolete.
In the past, successful penetration of a terrorist organization came about when a dissident member of the group volunteered his services in return for money or other considerations. This is how law enforcement and intelligence agencies broke the Euro-terrorists who were active in the 1970s and 1980s,
However, the success of this method depended on the radical groups being composed largely of middle-class students who were ideologically driven but by nature not necessarily loyal to a political cause or its leaders. The defector model does not appear to have been repeated successfully recently with the demographically quite different radical groups active in Syria, at least not at a level where serious intelligence might be produced.
Without the old insider model working, the CIA had to rely more on foreign intelligence agencies and their own political agendas. They also had to rely more upon technical intelligence collected by satellites and drones.
Naturally, it was only a step from using drones for intelligence collection to using them for air strikes against targets.
Although President Trump has been more aggressive in attacking ISIS with military assets, this hasn’t stopped the CIA’s operations. Trump has granted the CIA permission to carry out drone attacks against suspected terrorists. U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal in March that Trump secretly agreed to this policy shortly after his January 21, 2017 speech at CIA headquarters.
Unfortunately, there is no information about the number of drone attacks since Trump became president and how that compares with drone attacks during the Obama Administration.
Although the true figures are secret, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center now employs about 10% of the CIA’s workforce. It has grown from 300 before 9-11 to 2,000 today according to the Washington Post. But the focus isn’t on traditional intelligence, but an air war that employs a large remote drone air fleet.
The rest of the CIA is also more likely to be tasked to supporting this air war. According to the Washington Post, “About 20 percent of CIA analysts are now “targeters” scanning data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the crosshairs of a drone. The skill is in such demand that the CIA made targeting a designated career track five years ago, meaning analysts can collect raises and promotions without having to leave the targeting field.” One former CIA official candidly told the Washington Post that the CIA has become, “one hell of a killing machine.”
One long term problem for the CIA is that as “targeters” are promoted in the CIA and become high level managers, they will be more likely to see intelligence problems as targeting problems and not try to solve them using traditional spycraft. This is an outgrowth of the saying that “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
At the same time, new threats are appearing that American intelligence doesn’t have the resources to counter. As was seen this week, China is aggressively gathering intelligence in the US and countering the CIA’s attempts to keep abreast of Chinese activities.
Successful intelligence operations are time consuming. Agents take years to recruit and see them placed in key positions. Field officers take years to learn their craft and the subtleties of gathering intelligence. And, intelligence analysts require time to train in a geographic area.
The CIA’s focus on paramilitary operations is costing the agency in other fields like classic tradecraft. As was seen this week, intelligence failures will likely become more common in the future.