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Losing Secrets

We Have Serious Strategic Counterintelligence Problems

By Michael Tanji | September 19, 2007

Wars today are primarily intelligence battles. There is no spot on the planet the US military cannot destroy: the trick is figuring out which spot to target. Cruise missile, JDAM or ICBM: someone has to program in the target coordinates, and those coordinates have to come from an intelligence source of one sort or another.

The intelligence wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shifted from the strategic: trying to find out what was going on prior to the outbreak of hostilities; to primarily tactical: gathering information to feed current operations. Our government’s response to this demand has been fairly well covered, with the creation of new defense human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities to the adoption of HUMINT tradecraft by US special operations forces.

But as recently reported, we still have a very serious strategic intelligence problem to deal with, and the government’s response to the problem does not leave one feeling confident that we are up to the challenge.

From President Putin on down through the government hierarchy, all the key players in Russia are noted for their affiliation with the Russian (or previously Soviet) intelligence services. In fact the country was recently labeled a “neo-KGB state”. DNI McConnell is only the most recent US intelligence official to testify that Russian espionage activity is approaching cold war heights. At their peak, you may recall, the Russians penetrated both the FBI and CIA.

China’s espionage activities against the US are also at an all-time high, though the methodology used by the Chinese differs slightly from their former Soviet cousins. In addition to sending actual intelligence officers to the US under various forms of cover the Chinese may actively or passively use any citizen that visits or works in the US as a potential source. Businessmen, scientists and even our own defense and intelligence officials are obvious sources of immediately valuable information, but a student or tourist who shares seemingly benign information about their travels to an “immigration” official may in reality be providing another puzzle piece to an aggregate picture the PRC may have been assembling for years.

Counterintelligence (CI) – the discipline that focuses on identifying and defeating foreign intelligence threats – has long been a step-child in an intelligence community focused on collecting positive intelligence against foreign targets. The National Counterintelligence Executive was created in 2001 and was supposed to bolster CI activities and provide the discipline with additional clout. That lasted only a few years, with the NCIX now housed under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In a community that values autonomy as much as most of us value our limbs, this effectively means that CI is now back under the watchful eye of those who do not hold it in much esteem.

Technically speaking, success in counterintelligence means having nothing to report (read: no penetrations by hostile forces) but proving a negative also means not having metrics to point to when it is time to justify your agency budget. So success is re-defined by the number of spies that are rooted out and prosecuted. In reality these are merely indications of how weak our defenses against foreign intelligence services truly are, or in Orwellian terms: failure = success.

Being able to identify and neutralize intelligence threats before they compromise our security is paramount in an age when information is more important than any given weapons platform. That the Russian space shuttle looks suspiciously like our own; that Chinese space launch vehicles look suspiciously like our own; are merely the large, overt signs of how much we have ceded key aspects of our national security.

Our political leadership should be encouraging the community to move forthrightly to buttress our counterintelligence capabilities by leveraging the full spectrum of resources at hand. We should be organized in a manner that is representative of the various threats to our national security, resourced to deal with the increased collection efforts , and adopting a dramatically more robust and aggressive posture against adversaries old and new. Defending the United States is seldom a matter of arms, while it is always a matter of preparedness. More pointedly, it is a duty we cannot afford to shirk lest the Americans currently in harm’s way overseas be placed in greater danger due to our inattention to more discrete assaults back home.