Foreign Spies Are Serious. Are We?

By Michelle Van Cleave
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Back in 2002, I got an unexpected phone call from the White House. "Would you be interested in serving as the head of U.S. counterintelligence?" they asked.

The Obama administration may already have placed such a call and picked someone to handle my old job: identifying and stopping other nations' spies. But my successor will have his or her work cut out for them.

In 2003, when I began my three years as the first congressionally mandated national counterintelligence executive (known by the unpronounceable acronym NCIX), Washington seemed ready to transform the fight against foreign espionage into a focused, coherent enterprise. But today, this vital national security mission is on life support.

Think this isn't a big deal? Think again. Most Americans would be astonished to learn how successful foreign intelligence services have been at stealing our national security secrets and threatening our vital interests.

The Chinese stole the design secrets to all -- repeat, all -- U.S. nuclear weapons, enabling them to leapfrog generations of technology development and put our nuclear arsenal, the country's last line of defense, at risk. To this day, we don't know quite when or how they did it, but we do know that Chinese intelligence operatives are still at work, systematically targeting not only America's defense secrets but our industries' valuable proprietary information.

The Soviets, of course, were especially aggressive at spying -- a tradition that has roared back to life in Vladimir Putin's Russia. It was bad enough that the KGB learned so much about U.S. vulnerabilities, but scores of hostile intelligence services and terrorist groups have also been schooled in the tradecraft that the Soviets perfected.

If left unanswered, these growing foreign intelligence threats could endanger U.S. operations, military and intelligence personnel and even Americans at home. But across the government, our counterintelligence capabilities are in decay. The struggle against foreign intelligence threats has a national leadership in name only. Nor is it driven by any overall strategy, which means that integrating the efforts of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community has taken a back seat to individual agencies' priorities. Meanwhile, we are losing talent at an alarming pace. Take it from me: This is as unnecessary as it is dangerous.

Given the stakes, it may seem strange that, until very recently, there was no such job as "head of U.S. counterintelligence" -- no one person responsible for identifying foreign intelligence threats to U.S. national security or economic well-being and figuring out what to do about them. Instead, counterintelligence responsibilities were divided among the FBI, the CIA and the three military services, with no central leadership or overarching structure to unite them. That created inherent seams that adversaries could -- and did -- exploit.

Then came the 1994 arrest of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence chief who turned out to have been spying for the Soviets for nine long years. Through "dead drops" in Washington and meetings with his handlers abroad, Ames handed over comprehensive blueprints of U.S. collection operations against the Russians, including the identities of the very clandestine agents he was sworn to protect. At least nine people lost their lives because of Ames.

His treachery sparked a searching reexamination: What was wrong with U.S. counterintelligence? That anguished question became even more urgent with the February 2001 arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI special agent who had been working for the Russians for more than two decades -- to devastating effect. Hanssen handed over more than 6,000 pages of classified documents on some of our most sensitive national security programs, including details on U.S. nuclear-war defenses. He also revealed the identities of Russian agents working for the United States, two of whom were tried and executed.

How could such spies have operated unseen at the very heart of our national security enterprise for so long and with such success?

The answer was staring us in the face: We had no coherent game plan for identifying, assessing and stopping such threats. As the new head of U.S. counterintelligence, it would be my job to develop and execute the nation's first strategy for finding and neutralizing foreign spies.

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