A recent report has given the public a rare glimpse into one of the CIA’s most notorious sanfus, documenting how Chinese intelligence agencies were able to unmask American spies, ultimately leading to a reported 30 CIA assets being executed. It seems that a botched communications system was primarily at fault for those assets being uncovered, an uncomfortable reality for the United States’ secretive intelligence agency to face.
In May, a New York Times report shed light on the affair, describing years-long contention within the agency over what the cause of the breach may have been.
‘Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.’ (NYT)
Despite longtime speculation over the source or cause of the Chinese’s intelligence coup, there was no debate over how brutally the regime snuffed out those who they discovered to be CIA or FBI assets.
‘But there was no disagreement about the damage. From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, according to former American officials, the Chinese killed at least a dozen of the C.I.A.’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 C.I.A.
Still others were put in jail. All told, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the C.I.A.’s sources in China, according to two former senior American officials, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build.’ (NYT)
Now, there appears to be some concrete insight into the cause of the unmasking. The crux of the issue was, apparently, overconfidence in a communication system imported from the Middle East. Though the agency believed that their system was deployment-ready, the capability of the Chinese code-cracking contingent was seemingly underestimated.
“The attitude was that we’ve got this, we’re untouchable,” said one of the officials who, like the others, declined to be named discussing sensitive information. The former official described the attitude of those in the agency who worked on China at the time as “invincible.” (Foreign Policy)
In addition, China was effective in flipping at least one former CIA asset. Jerry Chun Shing Lee was indicted earlier this year on espionage charges as the result of alleged betrayal of his oath to the United States intelligence agencies. However, the wholesale rounding up of so many American spies indicates more fundamental flaws in the CIA’s operations. It was the cracking of their communications systems that is, it is thought, most responsible for the deaths that began to unfold eight years ago. Since then, all of the captured CIA assets have been put to death, making an already horrifica saga even more tragic.
‘The former officials also said the real number of CIA assets and those in their orbit executed by China during the two-year period was around 30, though some sources spoke of higher figures. The New York Times, which first reported the story last year, put the number at “more than a dozen.” All the CIA assets detained by Chinese intelligence around this time were eventually killed, the former officials said.’ (FP)
FP describes the internet-based security system which the Chinese were seemingly able to identify and manipulate so that they could eavesdrop on communications between CIA sources and their handlers.
‘The communications system used in China during this period was internet-based and accessible from laptop or desktop computers, two of the former officials said.
This interim, or “throwaway,” system, an encrypted digital program, allows for remote communication between an intelligence officer and a source, but it is also separated from the main communications system used with vetted sources, reducing the risk if an asset goes bad.’
This system was kept separate from the primary communications system, so that if an asset were to go bad, the communications of verified assets and handlers wouldn’t be compromised. However, there was apparently a flaw in the interim coding that did in fact connect back to the main CIA communications platform, so that those with access to the interim communications could also access the main communications network.
‘These digital links would have made it relatively easy for China to deduce that the covert communications system was being used by the CIA. In fact, some of these links pointed back to parts of the CIA’s own website, according to the former official.’
Chinese technological acumen has been well-known, but the lack of oversight into the connection between the “throw-away” communications and the rest of the CIA’s communications in China was a far too obvious and avoidable flaw. It is this fundamental flaw that ultimately proved fatal, and was the centerpiece of one of the most tragic, widely reported upon self-inflicted tragedies in the CIA’s history. The entire story offers a an eye-opening window into the constantly-waged, life-or-death intelligence wars that rage behind the scenes of overt diplomacy.