Harold Hutchison / August 23, 2018

The CIA Lost This Intel Network on Obama’s Watch

Failure meant at least a dozen American assets in China were captured and executed.

It seems that the Obama administration’s inattention/bungling in the areas of foreign policy, national security, and intelligence has gotten even worse than you can imagine. Details emerged earlier this month in Foreign Policy about how the CIA’s network of human intelligence assets in Communist China was rolled up.

Human intelligence is not like the James Bond movies — at least not completely. Much of it is more like the ways a cop talks with his informants. In fact, it usually is just that. The big difference is that the CIA usually has had a lot more leeway in how its informants can operate than a detective looking to bring in a drug kingpin or a killer. The informant — or “asset” — is taking huge risks, as he is pretty much betraying his country. Some countries don’t take kindly to that.

Well, some new tools came along. The idea was to reduce the risk to assets through the use of an online system. This was seen as a way to get information faster and theoretically keep the asset safer. The assumption was that an agent could get information and still be at his desk working as a cultural attache or some other official cover in the embassy — and not be seen by the opposing side meeting with the informant on numerous occasions.

Well, U.S. intelligence didn’t set the system up right, and it was compromised. Exactly how, we still don’t know, years after the fact. The most likely explanation appears to be a combination of a poor set-up of the online comms system (initially designed for use in the Middle East) that allowed China to hack into a more secure version of the online system, along with the acts of a Chinese spy in the CIA. One of the other fundamental failures was to not take China’s Great Firewall into account.

The end result: At least a dozen assets were captured and executed. America lost assets in China, as China increased its power. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that this was a major disaster. But rebuilding networks is not the only challenge facing the intelligence community. It is facing some other challenges, inflicted by Beltway politicians.

We should remember that during the War on Terror, members of the intelligence community were told that enhanced interrogation techniques were legal and could be used when necessary, only to see the Obama administration do an about-face with cover from the likes of John McCain. Even after Obama was gone, McCain then proceeded to help Democrats slime Gina Haspel, now the CIA director, over those interrogation techniques. Such shameful treatment makes agents in the field wonder if politicians will have their back or stab them in it.

The other problem is that the questions over the misuse of the FISA court have now made it that much harder to rebuild the intelligence community or to get agents to take risks to carry out missions necessary to protect this country’s vital interests, even in the face of the growing threats from Russia and China. The takedown of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is also going to require covert action and intelligence gathering — the type of missions our intelligence agencies are intended to carry out.

As a result, we now are at a greater risk of being caught by surprise should China make an aggressive move.

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