Does China Have a Counterintelligence Edge Against the US?

A new report suggests China has successfully cracked down on U.S. human intelligence sources within its borders.

Does China Have a Counterintelligence Edge Against the US?
Credit: CIA Website via Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday, the New York Times‘ Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman, Michael S. Schmidt, and Matt Apuzzo released a report cataloging the Chinese government’s successful campaign in recent years to weed out human intelligence sources for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In a span of just two years — from the “final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012” — the Chinese reportedly killed “a dozen of the CIA’s sources.” Other sources had been imprisoned.

The report highlights the possibility that today, China may have a serious edge in counterintelligence — defeating espionage — over the United States. In recent years, there have been multiple reports in the U.S. of the Federal Bureau of Investigation succeeding in counterintelligence efforts. For instance, in late-March 2017, a U.S. State Department employee faced charges for lying to U.S. investigators about her contacts over multiple years with Chinese intelligence. Other recent instances of U.S. counterintelligence operations include the FBI discovering and charging one of its one computer technicians with passing sensitive information along to the Chinese government and a U.S. naval flight officer charged with passing military secrets to China. (The officer later struck a deal, admitting to sharing information with women he befriended, but not to spying.)

Of course, it’s natural that the United States and China would spy on each other as any two great powers locked in geopolitical competition would. But, per the Times report, China has seen great success in dismantling “a network that had taken years to build” for the United States. “The number of American 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 C.I.A. and the F.B.I., who divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years,” the report emphasizes.

Keep in mind too that since the 2015 breach of the U.S. Federal government’s Office of Personnel Management data — a breach that may have given China-based hackers access to the sensitive personal information of more than 20 million Americans who’d worked for the government — Beijing’s ability to improve its counterintelligence sweeps could be significantly upgraded. The Times describes an evaporation of HUMINT in China in the 2010-2012 period that could have since gotten far worse in the aftermath of the OPM breach, whose effects may be felt for years. Between the Times report and the still-poorly-understood implications of the OPM breach, all signs point to China having gained a considerable edge against the United States in counterintelligence, posing a challenge for U.S. intelligence agencies for potentially decades to come.