A report in the New York Times sourced to 10 ‘current and former officials’ says that between 2010 and 2012 China dismantled the entire CIA operation in China, rounding up, executing and jailing up to 20 spies working for the CIA.
It seems that in one case the Chinese executed one of the captured spies in the courtyard of a government building in front of his colleagues of whatever institution he was working for in order to impress on them the risks of spying for the CIA.
It seems this was the biggest single defeat the CIA has suffered since the end of the Cold War, and to this day officials remain divided as to its cause, with some blaming a mole (their suspicions apparently centre on one individual who is now said to be living in an Asian country) whilst others blamed sloppy handling by the spies’ handlers in Beijing. Regardless it seems that the whole episode continues to cause recrimination within the US intelligence community to this day.
Setting aside the question of how China detected and broke this spy ring, there are a number of points to take from this episode.
The first is that though the New York Times article claims that by 2013 China had supposedly lost its ability to detect US spies working in China, the defeat seems so devastating that it is most unlikely that the CIA spying operation in China has fully recovered to the level of before 2010.
The second is that though the Chinese acted decisively and ruthlessly to smash the CIA spy ring, they also acted discreetly. Contrast the little we know about this affair – and the total silence China has maintained about it – with the huge fuss the US made about the so-called ‘Russian illegals‘ , who were rounded up by the FBI at roughly the same time in 2010.
Contrary to some claims, the ‘illegals’ were not spies but sleeper agents Russian intelligence tried to embed in the US to support future spying operations there. Since none of them was actually a spy the charges brought against them were relatively minor, and all of them were quickly deported to Russia, where they were exchanged for actual US spies Russia had arrested and was holding in prison. Despite the fact that none of the ‘illegals’ were spies, the affair dominated the news for several days with one of the individuals arrested – Anna Chapman, who was an intelligence courier not an ‘illegal’ – becoming an overnight media star.
The contrast between the saturation publicity the US gave to the unmasking of this ring, and China’s silence about the far more drastic steps it was taking at roughly the same time as it eliminated what was clearly a genuine spy ring, is striking.
One has to wonder whether the extraordinary publicity the US gave to the unmasking of the Russian ‘illegals’ was at least in part a form of psychological compensation for its massive defeat in China.
The third point follows from the second, which is that one of the reason the Chinese kept this affair secret – and why the US did so also – was to avoid the huge possible damage there might have been to US-Chinese relations if this affair had been made public. It is easy to see how the revelation of the extent of US spying in China might have come as a shock to people in China, and the Chinese leadership obviously decided that it did not want to poison China’s already difficult relationship with the US further by publicising the matter.
The fourth point is that despite this Chinese concern, the size of the US spying operation in China – and China’s fierce reaction to its discovery – shows that the two countries, for all the gracious words they sometimes exchange with each other, are rivals and adversaries, not ‘partners’ or friends.
The fifth point is that the Chinese clearly react far more ruthlessly to the discovery of spies in their midst than the Russians do.
Over the long years of the Cold War spying between the US and the USSR, and since the end of the Cold War between the US and Russia, has developed a clear set of rules. Spies working for one country, when they are caught by the other country, save in the most extreme circumstances, stopped being executed long ago, even at a time when the USSR still had the death penalty. Instead they are held in prison until they are eventually exchanged.
Clearly this is not the case between the US and China.
The sixth point is that this episode once again highlights the importance of spying – ie. of ‘human intelligence’ – in the intelligence game. For all the vast machinery of signals intelligence and electronic spying about which we hear so much, traditional spycraft clearly still has its place, and the US together with the other Great Powers still practices it.
The seventh and last point is that the leak of this story to the New York Times was clearly officially sanctioned – presumably by the CIA’s new boss Mike Pompeo – and one has to wonder why.
Could it be that he and Trump have decided to highlight the greatest single intelligence debacle the US experienced during the lifetime of the Obama administration by way of some sort of message to those who are orchestrating the Russiagate affair? If so then the leaking of this story may be the first step in a counterattack against President Trump’s tormentors, with possibly more revelations like this to come.