China’s ascendancy is more often than not chronicled by staggering economic reports and media coverage of ambitious infrastructure projects. Consequently, the full extent of Chinese “soft power” goes underreported or is summarily taken for granted by Western analysts. In fact, the gains made by China in these areas are of such significance that they can be in great part attributed to Western shortcomings. Nowhere does this become more evident than when examining American intelligence and counterintelligence failures against the PRC. The recent arrest of Chinese mole Jerry Chun Shing Lee once again demonstrates the American intelligence community’s penchant to severely overestimate itself and foolishly underestimate the capabilities of rival states.
The extent of damage inflicted by Lee’s employment to Chinese intelligence is still being calculated behind closed doors, yet the information that is available harkens back to Cold War era defections the likes of Aldrich Ames or Vasili Mitrokhin. Lee, an American citizen, served in the US Army in the 1980’s and in 1994 worked in the CIA as a case officer. Serving in China for several years, Lee left the agency for Hong Kong in 2007, amid rumours that his departure was spurred by the disenfranchisement of a stagnant career.
Sometime between Lee’s departure in 2007, and 2010, Chinese intelligence (MSS) acquired Lee as an asset. In 2010 they began systematically dismantling the CIA’s network in China; either by assassination of the spies or their imprisonment. One spy was shot directly in front of his colleague in the courtyard of a government building as a message to the CIA.
In 2012 and 2013, Lee was questioned by the FBI when he returned to the United States to stay with family. The FBI also conducted a search of his hotel room which revealed two books—contained in these books were the real names and phone numbers of CIA assets in China, alongside content similar to what Lee had written in classified cables during his time at CIA. Lee failed to disclose this information to the FBI during questioning.
For some reason, the FBI cut Lee loose following his interrogation, whereupon he returned to Hong Kong. This was likely because counterintelligence agents thought they could dangle Lee in order to catch a handler in the MSS or search for his contacts in the United States. Against the side of caution, Lee returned to the United States earlier in January and was arrested on charges of violating various nondisclosure agreements and espionage.
With the casualties of Lee’s double agency standing at over 20 people dead or imprisoned, the breach represents a devastating blow to American intelligence that they ought to have had ample opportunity to prevent. However, American intelligence culture in a post 9/11 context has a proclivity to indulge vulnerabilities and encourage defections. Even in the face of perceived “lesser” challenges or lower intelligence priorities, sinking massive amounts of money and manpower into fruitless and ill-begot ventures that backfire and undermine the nation’s credibility appears in news headlines far too often. A monolithic complex centered on contracting, soulless data collection and number-crunching gives ample opportunity for employees to become disillusioned or fall prey to foreign intelligence services’ overtures. More importantly, it may result in fundamental principles of tradecraft and old-school espionage being underdeveloped or completely ignored. In this sense, the bigger the intelligence community in the US becomes, the more vulnerable it is to subversion and self-harm.
In opposition to the CIA, agencies like the MSS have retained the ability to conduct clandestine operations and effectively meet intelligence needs while preserving their secrecy by staying strategically oriented. Intelligence objectives incorporate the entire apparatus and every person is made integral to a mission no matter how small a part they play. For instance, the acquisition of the American W-88 nuclear warhead designs took the Chinese decades to acquire; but, by using several low and mid-profile assets, the designs eventually fell into Chinese hands at very little risk and relatively little investment on Beijing’s part.
While the United States acknowledges frequently that the PRC is an intelligence priority, responses and practices toward Beijing tell a completely different story. Additionally, the strategies employed and tradecraft that is ignored suggests that either indifference or gross incompetence drives the American intelligence community’s approach towards intelligence threats. For instance, the FBI estimates that the PRC has established over 3000 front companies inside the United States to conduct economic espionage. Mainstream media has already acknowledged the link between Chinese front companies and illicit economic assistance to more overt national security threats such as the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. And yet, disrupting and preventing such damage from being inflicted seems incredibly difficult to prosecute and—in the worst case—politically distasteful.
Chinese intelligence favours a “trickle” of information to achieve intelligence goals, and employs a vast association of think tank members and cut-outs (Chinese-Americans especially) to make overtures on behalf of Beijing. In one of most notorious instances of domestic political interference, MSS agents attempting to persuade a Chinese dissident living in the U.S. to return to China were intercepted by the FBI on two occasions, but not arrested due to a letter hand-delivered to President Trump through Chinese proxies. To make matters worse, Trump subsequently called for the dissident’s deportation.
The American intelligence community needs to drastically shift its approach to their own apparatus in order to be effective and fulfill their mandate. In this regard, analyzing the Chinese approach to state security can reveal valuable insights and help prevent self-sabotage and embarrassing mistakes from being made in the future. Although the Chinese government is centralized, making penetration of their intelligence apparatus difficult (and heavily discourages defections and recruitment by the West), this can actually increase opportunities for American intelligence.
A priority for American national security interests with regards to China must accommodate the freedom of Chinese citizens to have access to the same information and marketplace of ideas that most of the world does. This objective goes hand-in-glove with ensuring security within America’s intelligence apparatus through the realization that employees in this apparatus are engaged in a competition of values and not simply propaganda. This approach will lessen the extent to which employees become disillusioned and increase morale.
A second intelligence priority must be the scaling back and further compartmentalization of the apparatus in general. The over-reliance on contractors and poorly-planned intelligence operations decreases effectiveness across the board and provides zero accountability and screening of personnel who could be a security liability. The indulgence of this mercenary culture has only ensured gross incompetence and opportunities for adversaries to turn non-committed employees against their own country.