China managed to “systematically dismantle” the CIA’s intelligence gathering efforts over a period of several years by executing or imprisoning a number of American sources, according to an explosive New York Times report published on Saturday.
Citing unnamed sources, the Times reported that between 18 to 20 CIA informants were either killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government from late 2010 to early 2012, crippling the foreign intelligence organization’s operations in China for years, even prompting questions and concerns from within the Obama administration regarding the striking decline in the amount of information.
Most sensationally, according to the report, one of the informants was “shot in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a government building,” in order to send “a message to others who might have been working for the CIA.”
Four former CIA officials told the paper that a joint counter-intelligence operation was set up between the CIA and FBI, code-named “Honey Badger,” to determine how the agents had been compromised. However the results of the operation were inconclusive, with some blaming Chinese hacking and others blaming a mole.
“One of the really troubling things about this is that we still don’t know what happened,” Matt Apuzzo, a NYT journalist who worked on the story, told the BBC.
None of the alleged informants were named in the story. The CIA has not commented on the report; neither have Chinese or US officials.
However, China’s nationalistic Global Times has, of course, given its own opinion about the report. In an editorial published on Monday titled “NYT’s spy in China story full of narcissism,” the infamously bombastic tabloid calls the report’s assertion that an informant was shot in a government courtyard a “purely fabricated story, most likely a piece of American-style imagination based on ideology.”
The editorial goes on to accuse the New York Times of trying to damage US-China ties at a critical moment in relations, and also of being obsessed with Tom Cruise action movies:
The NYT report seems to be a white-knuckle beginning for a new version of Mission: Impossible: American spies who worked in China disappeared, and some of them died miserably. However, no one knew the reason for their deaths. The journalists who wrote the report must have been deeply addicted to the franchise.
Meanwhile, the piece also criticizes the report for portraying US informants as “innocents” and Chinese police as “merciless.” “It’s absurd that under their description, the US is always the noble side whether it is catching spies or sending spies,” the editorial reads. But with all that said, the Global Times couldn’t help but gloat and applaud:
If this article is telling the truth, we would like to applaud China’s anti-espionage activities. 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.
The opinion piece ends by warning that the CIA increasing its espionage activities in China can only lead to China increasing its own counter-intelligence efforts — which could mean more money for snitches. Last month, the Beijing department of China’s National Security Bureau announced that it was offering rewards of up to 500,000 yuan for help in unmasking foreign spies.
China has often looked to crowdsource its counter-intelligence operations. Back in 2015, the country set up a national hotline so that citizens could easily report foreign agents. To help its people identify a foreign spy, authorities issued a handy list of suspicious traits to look out for, including: “People who regularly visit certain places to exchange good or documents.”
Most infamously, last April, Beijing’s state security launched a campaign to warn susceptible Chinese women to be wary when dating foreign men, in case they should turn out to be spies, only after China’s secrets.
[Images via Edwin Lee]
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