The vulnerability of digital communication systems, despite being encrypted, emphasized the discovery of a major security breach in China’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spy network.
Last year, a New York Times publication unveiled for the first time the CIA’s failure in China, considered one of the most secret agencies in decades. Between 2010 and 2012, about 30 US agents (or more, according to some sources) were kidnapped and executed, and the CIA’s decades-long network in the Asian country was virtually destroyed by Chinese authorities.
Now, nearly eight years later, the Foreign Policy portal published an article with statements from five current and retired Intelligence officials about how Beijing managed to dismantle the spy network so accurately and quickly.
The reasons were investigated by a special CIA commission in collaboration with the FBI, which was able to identify three potential causes of historical failure: treason, wrongdoing by the agents themselves that allowed the Chinese authorities to detect them and a violation in the communication system. As a result, the investigators came to the conclusion that it was the “junction and combination” of the three factors that made it easier for China to destroy the spy network, according to one intelligence official.
Communications system failure
When CIA agents start working with a new agent, they often resort to the use of a temporary encrypted communication system that is totally independent of the CIA’s core network, which allows security to be guaranteed if the person ends up being an agent double.
During the investigation, it was discovered that the temporary CIA system contained a technical error, because it was connected to the main communication platform. According to one of the former officials, the CIA “screwed the firewall” between the two systems. Thus, Chinese experts have penetrated the temporary system through a double agent, from the computer from one of the sources revealed by a traitor or after detecting patterns of suspicious activity in the network. From there, they could enter the common base and discover the entire spy network.
The secret communications system used in China was used for the first time by US security forces in war zones in the Middle East, where security challenges and tactical goals are different, according to Foreign Policy sources. The system was not designed to handle a highly sophisticated intelligence service like China’s and a completely different digital environment, they explained.
A possible informant
Other factors also influenced the destruction of the US spy ring, including China’s alleged recruitment of former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee. Federal prosecutors indicted Lee earlier this year on the matter.
Judicial documents suggest that Lee was China’s possible informant and that he maintained contact with the State Security Ministry of the People’s Republic of China at least until 2011. Chinese authorities have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their efforts, according to the documents.
Recourse to older methods
One of the former officials said the agency had “strong evidence” that China shared its findings with Russia, where some CIA sources were using a similar system of secret communications. Several of these sources in Russia suddenly broke off their relationship with their CIA mentors during the same time that the network collapsed in the Asian country.
According to former officials, the failure of the communications system has reignited a debate within the intelligence community about the desirability of using older, less technological methods to engage in covert interactions with sources.
CIA officials operating in China since failure have reverted to old methods of communication, even clandestinely with sources, although such methods may be time-consuming and risky.