Intelligence: Spies Gone Wild

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September 24, 2007: While American intelligence agencies have been busy collecting information on terrorists, their counter-intelligence departments, which try to disrupt enemy spying efforts, have been swamped. Espionage efforts by Russia are back to Cold War levels, and increasingly active Chinese spies exceed the Russian efforts. In addition, there are powerful new spying tools, like Internet hacking, or simply making good use of Internet search tools to vacuum up all manner of useful information. Some would not consider that spying, but experienced spies will tell you that, for gathering information in the West, the many open sources there are excellent targets for uncovering "secret information."

So what's the overwhelmed counter-intel crew to do? Setting priorities, and going after the most dangerous spying efforts, is the text-book solution. The problem is deciding which secrets are most valuable, compared to which ones the enemy are going after, and what it will cost to add some effective protection. In practical terms, a lot of money is being spent on Internet security, and the FBI (which is the lead organization for traditional counter-intel) is doing some highly visible prosecutions of spies that do get caught. Sort of like a warning to the others. This is not having much impact on the Chinese, who are using the "thousand grains of sand" approach. This means that China tries to get all Chinese going overseas, and those of Chinese ancestry living outside the motherland, to spy for China, if only a tiny bit. This approach to espionage is nothing new. Other nations have used similar systems for centuries. What is unusual is the scale of the Chinese effort.

Backing it all up is a Chinese intelligence bureaucracy back home that is huge, with nearly 100,000 people working just to keep track of the many Chinese overseas, and what they could, or should, be to trying to grab for the motherland. It begins when Chinese intelligence officials examining who is going overseas, and for what purpose. Chinese citizens cannot leave the country, legally, without the state security organizations being notified. The intel people are not being asked to give permission. They are being alerted in case they want to have a talk with students, tourists or business people before they leave the country. Interviews are often held when these people come back as well.

Those who might be coming in contact with useful information are asked to remember what they saw, or bring back souvenirs. Over 100,000 Chinese students go off to foreign universities each year. Even more go abroad as tourists or on business. Most of these people were not asked to actually act as spies, but simply to share, with Chinese government officials (who are not always identified as intelligence personnel) whatever information they obtained. The more ambitious of these people are getting caught and prosecuted. But the majority, who are quite casual, and, individually, bring back relatively little, are almost impossible to catch.

The Russians are using their traditional methods, using people with diplomatic immunity to recruit spies, and offering cash, or whatever, to get people to sell them information. Not as effective as the Chinese methods. But note that the Chinese are using the "thousand grains of sand" against Russia as well, in addition to just offering bribes for secrets. The Russians do not like this at all.

 


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