Authorities in China executed or jailed 18 U.S. government spies from 2010 to 2012 based on information gleaned in one of the worst intelligence breaches seen in the U.S. intelligence community in decades.
The Chinese government sentenced to death at least a dozen Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sources in a two-year span, according to former U.S. officials who spoke anonymously to the New York Times (NYT).
The sources of the breaches are still unknown, and the debate still lingers as to whether there was a spy in the CIA who leaked names of U.S. intelligence sources in Beijing.
The U.S. spy agency had been getting high-quality information about the Chinese government from sources deep inside the bureaucracy, including from Chinese people upset by the Beijing government’s corruption, before arrests made in China led to imprisonment and killings beginning in 2010.
The information began to dry up by the end of 2010 and the sources began disappearing in early 2011, according to the report.
The CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) teamed up to investigate the events in an operation one source said was codenamed “Honey Badger.” The investigation centered on a former CIA operative who worked in a division overseeing China, but he was not arrested because there was not enough evidence.
Here are five things to know about China’s execution or imprisonment of 18 U.S. government spies.
Investigators are not sure whether the breach was from a spy within the CIA who betrayed the sources or whether this was a tradecraft problem — the CIA agents got sloppy and got discovered — or whether the Chinese managed to hack communications.
The CIA pulled staff out of the U.S. embassy in Beijing much later — in 2015 — after a hack blamed on the Chinese state exposed information about millions of U.S. federal employees. However, if the events of 2010-2012 were helped by a similar hack, it was not the one that was made public.
The disappearance of so many U.S. government spies damaged a network it had taken years to build up, and hindered operations for years afterward, according to the report, prompting questions from within the Obama administration as to why intelligence had slowed.
The internet-based communication system that was used between spies and their handlers was inefficient, according to one CIA official.
This internet-based system, brought over from operations in the Middle East, was taken to China under the assumption that it could not be breached and made the CIA “invincible”, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Intelligence officers communicated with each other using ordinary laptops and desktop computers connected to the internet, and this “throwaway” encrypted program, which was assumed to be untraceable and separate from the CIA’s main communication line, was used for new spies as a safety measure in case they double-crossed the agency.
The Chinese set up a task force to break into the throwaway system, but it was unclear how they identified people.
Some former officials said there was a good reason to suspect an insider because around that time, Chinese spies compromised NSA surveillance in Taiwan, an island Beijing claims to be part of China, by infiltrating Taiwanese intelligence — a U.S. partner — according to two former officials.
The spy hunt eventually zeroed in on a former CIA operative, believing he was most likely responsible for the crippling disclosures. But there was not enough evidence to arrest him, and he is now living in another Asian country, according to current and former officials.
Some FBI agents were convinced that CIA handlers in Beijing were careless and often traveled the same routes to the same meeting points, which would have helped China’s vast surveillance network identify U.S. government spies in its midst.
Chinese agents had planted listening devices at a restaurant where some officers met their sources, and even the waiters worked for Chinese intelligence, according to former officials.
The CIA and the FBI opened a joint investigation into the deaths and disappearances of U.S. intelligence operatives, but they are yet to publicly comment on the matter, according to the NYT report. From a secret office in Northern Virginia, they began analyzing every operation being run in Beijing.
As more and more sources disappeared, the operation took on increased urgency. Nearly every employee at the U.S. Embassy was scrutinized, no matter how high ranking.
Although investigators reportedly had a list of suspects, including a Chinese American who left the agency just before the killings began, no charges were filed, and the episode is still a matter of debate within the intelligence community.
Officials described the intelligence breach as being on par with U.S. losses in the Soviet Union and Russia after breaches by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed the CIA and FBI in their time.
Current and former U.S. officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were divided over the cause.
But there was no disagreement about the damage. From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, the Chinese killed at least a dozen CIA sources, according to former American officials.
Three of the officials interviewed said one of those killed was executed in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a government building as a message to the CIA assets working in the country, and others were thrown in jail.
Photo: A Chinese honor guard marches outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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