China reacted to the revelation it had purged a network of CIA informants with a victory lap, boasting that the execution of a dozen spies within the last seven years was a triumph for its “anti-espionage activities.”
The network was terminated between 2010 and 2012, The New York Times reported Saturday, with 12 or more people killed and several more imprisoned. Without providing confirmation, the Global Times newspaper, which is published by the official People’s Daily, said in an editorial smashing the ring with extreme prejudice was a “sweeping victory.”
“If this article is telling the truth, we would like to applaud China’s anti-espionage activities,” read the editorial. “Not only was the CIA’s spy network dismantled, but Washington had no idea what happened and which part of the spy network had gone wrong.
“It can be taken as a sweeping victory. Perhaps it means even if the CIA makes efforts to rebuild its spy network in China, it could face the same result.”
If true, the action would be one of the worst security breaches in the U.S. intelligence services in decades. The Times reported that the saga still unnerves the CIA, and although investigators questioned a Chinese-American who left the CIA just before the crackdown began he was allowed to return home to Asia and no charges relating to turning on fellow agents have ever been filed.
While the CIA has undoubtedly carried out its own assessment of what happened, the Times article prompted former insiders to speculate about what caused the demise of the spy network.
“This would indicate an internal, insider threat type of person who was spying for the Chinese,” former CIA Deputy General Counsel for Operations Robert Eatinger told Fox News. Eatinger was Acting General Counsel of the CIA from 2009 to 2014 and now runs his own law firm, SpyLaw Consulting.
Former CIA clandestine officer Mike Baker agreed.
“When you start losing a number of assets, especially when they are all compartmentalized away from each other, you have to assume that one possible explanation is you’ve got a counterintelligence problem, that there is someone with knowledge on the inside - a mole…a traitor,” Baker said.
Asked whether the incident represents an ongoing vulnerability to Chinese infiltration of the CIA, Eatinger pointed out “if somebody is very smart and cautious they can get away with this for a very long time.”
The CIA declined to comment on the disappearing CIA informants in China.
Eatinger agreed with the Chinese editorial, saying the incident “certainly” has a chilling effect on U.S. efforts to spy on Beijing.
“It’s tougher to get new people to talk to you, and the ones you have may stop talking and go away, particularly if you can’t protect their identity," he said.
The fact that the story took several years to get into the media could be attributable to CIA employees retiring and finally being able to discuss it publicly, Eatinger added.
Baker said “there is no good reason” to be talking about this now, “unless, and this is speculation, it’s to let the Chinese know that we're on to something to create movement on the other side.” Such a strategy could be acceptable tradecraft.
But Baker worried that it’s also possible that CIA sources revealed the story to reporters because of a cultural problem within the intel community. Segments of the community have been battling with the Trump administration, through a series of leaks.
“Even if what people believe that what they are leaking is OK because it’s simply political and about Trump, there is an overall impact on the culture…it lowers the bar…it starts to normalize the idea of leaking or talking about other, more sensitive things,” he said.
The revelations come amid several incidents of attempted Chinese recruitment of Americans to spy on Beijing’s behalf, including a 28-year-old applicant to the CIA who had studied in China during his college years. Glenn Duffie Shriver was imprisoned for attempting to sell national defense secrets to Chinese agents for about $70,000.
After he was convicted and imprisoned, Shriver starred in FBI videos warning American students of the dangers of Chinese recruitment.
"If someone is offering you money and it feels like you don't have to do anything for that money, then there’s probably a hook in there that you're not seeing,” Shriver said in one FBI video.
The Shriver case reportedly led the CIA to think twice about recruiting Americans who studied in China, which in turn made it harder to recruit qualified CIA officers.
“There’s a far greater scrutiny of anyone who has spent time in China as a student, particularly on the longer-term programs,” former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific Dennis Wilder told Newsweek.
Meanwhile, a veteran State Department employee was charged in March with making false statements to the FBI about gifts she received from Chinese spies, including an iPhone, a laptop and international travel.
Intelligence gathering “is a high risk world,” Baker told Fox News. “That’s why it’s such an emotional issue for the agency. People die. It’s very serious. It’s never helpful if people can’t keep their mouths shut.”