From Foreign Policy, we learn how China managed to roll up the CIA’s entire network of informants across the country in 2010-12, executing about 30 people in total:
It was considered one of the CIA’s worst failures in decades: Over a two-year period starting in late 2010, Chinese authorities systematically dismantled the agency’s network of agents across the country, executing dozens of suspected U.S. spies. But since then, a question has loomed over the entire debacle.
Now, nearly eight years later, it appears that the agency botched the communication system it used to interact with its sources, according to five current and former intelligence officials. The CIA had imported the system from its Middle East operations, where the online environment was considerably less hazardous, and apparently underestimated China’s ability to penetrate it. […]
The former officials also said the real number of CIA assets and those in their orbit executed by China during the two-year period was around 30, though some sources spoke of higher figures. The New York Times, which first reported the story last year, put the number at “more than a dozen.” All the CIA assets detained by Chinese intelligence around this time were eventually killed, the former officials said. […]
Some staggering technical incompetence on the part of the CIA appears to have been involved:
Although they used some of the same coding, the interim system and the main covert communication platform used in China at this time were supposed to be clearly separated. In theory, if the interim system were discovered or turned over to Chinese intelligence, people using the main system would still be protected—and there would be no way to trace the communication back to the CIA. But the CIA’s interim system contained a technical error: It connected back architecturally to the CIA’s main covert communications platform. When the compromise was suspected, the FBI and NSA both ran “penetration tests” to determine the security of the interim system. They found that cyber experts with access to the interim system could also access the broader covert communications system the agency was using to interact with its vetted sources, according to the former officials.
In the words of one of the former officials, the CIA had “fucked up the firewall” between the two systems.
And a tweet from the author, Zach Dorfman:
This didn’t make it into the piece, but here’s how the Chinese treated people working with the CIA: According to one source, one asset working at a state tech institutes, and his pregnant wife, were executed live on closed circuit TV in front of the staff.
What a disaster. HUMINT is a dangerous game, even more so when sloppy tradecraft is being used. Also, I question the value of this type of high-risk skullduggery. Chinese intentions with regard to the US are not hard to discern, and access to all the secrets in the world is useless if a country is not willing to defend its national interests.