US unready for rising threat of 'moles'
A recent report on US intelligence harshly critiqued counter-spy efforts.
WASHINGTON — Amid all the criticism of the US's faulty intelligence-gathering, a new concern is surfacing about America's premier national-security agencies - their vulnerability to counterespionage.
Because the US has reached such lone, superpower status, government officials say, at least 90 countries - in addition to Al Qaeda - are attempting to steal some of the nation's most sacred secrets.
It's not only foes, like members of terror groups or nations that are adversaries of the US, but friends as well. The top five countries trying to snoop on US plans and cutting-edge technology, according to an official who works closely with the FBI on this issue, are China, Russia, Israel, France, and North Korea. Others running close behind: Cuba, Pakistan, and India.
"With the end of the Soviet Union, people stopped taking counterintelligence seriously," says Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Not enough attention has been devoted to keeping people from getting into our secret store of knowledge."
The issue is getting more attention now. The Silberman-Robb commission, the latest to scrutinize the intelligence capabilities of the US, harshly criticized the US's counterintelligence efforts across the 15 agencies and recommended major changes. During the same week, the Bush administration released its National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States. And top counterintelligence officials participated in a conference at Texas A&M University earlier in March.
A chief concern, officials say, is that Al Qaeda or other terror groups may try to infiltrate US national security agencies. Paul Redmond, a former CIA counterintelligence official who spoke at the conference last month, said it is an "actuarial certainty" that foreign spies have again infiltrated US national-security agencies.
The CIA, according to a recruiter at the conference, has already flagged about 40 applicants who they think may have tried to be double agents. This would fit Al Qaeda's pattern, according to Michael Scheuer, a former top CIA counterterrorism official. Al Qaeda operatives, he says, have already penetrated several security agencies in Middle Eastern countries.
The US has long had trouble with double agents. During the cold war, essentially every component of the US's national- security apparatus - with maybe the exception of the Coast Guard - was penetrated, experts say. Moles working for adversaries of the US stole closely guarded secrets, including details on nuclear weapons programs, cryptographic codes, and information on how the US spies on its adversaries.
Moreover, intelligence officials and experts say, this is an area where the US has never gained an advantage overseas, and it's becoming more difficult to operate in an ever-changing world.
For one thing, all 15 US intelligence agencies have ramped up their recruiting efforts - possibly opening the door to infiltrators - to support the government's policies in the war on terror. At the same time, the US has engaged in more information-sharing activities with allies - the coalition in Iraq, for example, and several other arrangements with foreign governments for strategic reasons.
The US shares critical technology and weapons programs with allies, like Israel. But in the past, and again more recently, the US has censured Israel for selling that technology to US adversaries, like China. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and reportedly made it clear that Israel was to stop selling US-originated weapons systems, like the HARPY unmanned aerial vehicle, to China.
"We continue to raise these concerns with allies, friends, and partners and look for them to take a responsible approach to arms sales to China," says Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
But it is also difficult for Americans to become double agents and counter foreign spies because of cultural sensitivities. "We're never going to be as good at developing techniques and strategies [as] ... countries in opposition to us," says Peter Crooks, a 20-year veteran of the FBI's counterintelligence program.
He explains that countries like Cuba, former Soviet bloc countries, and several in the Middle East don't hesitate to use such tactics. But in the US, people find it distasteful, even dishonorable, to spy on neighbors or to try to turn them into informants.
Indeed, Mr. Lang tells the story of speaking on intelligence gathering at a recent conclave at Penn State. A South Korean in the audience, a member of that country's equivalent of the FBI, asked why the US is so bad at espionage.
Lang replied: "Well, we've got you here for two years, right? Wouldn't it be logical for us to put a couple of our guys next to you, recruit you, so that when you return home, you can provide us information from inside your government?"
The South Korean responded that would be perfectly appropriate: It's what other countries routinely do.
Lang says he paused a moment, smiled, then pointed out how uncomfortable the audience had become - most, he says, were squirming in their seats.
Yet experts like Lang and Crooks say that's exactly what needs to be done. The US needs to recruit members of the large immigrant communities in the US who travel back and forth to home countries and know the cultures.
The Silberman-Robb report called for more aggressive tactics, too. "Even as our adversaries - and many of our 'friends' - ramp up their intelligence activities against the United States, our counterintelligence efforts remain fractured, myopic, and marginally effective," the report states. "Our counterintelligence philosophy and practices need dramatic change, starting with centralizing counterintelligence leadership ... and taking our counterintelligence fight overseas to adversaries currently safe from scrutiny."