The recent spate of reporting on nuclear espionage by the People's Republic of China has given the public good reason for concern, but from my point of view as a longtime China counterintelligence analyst, people are alarmed for the wrong reasons. The simple truth is that China has its own distinctive philosophy of intelligence, and until we have a broader understanding of just what China is doing and how it is doing it, further losses of the same sort are inevitable.
The universal point of reference for intelligence matters has always been the way the former Soviet Union conducted its operations. As with those who are focused on fighting the last war, observers naturally assume every country will spy like the Soviets.
U.S. intelligence operations during the Cold War typically were run by professional intelligence officers. In response to instructions from back home, they would develop agents, and when a good one was found an effort was made to milk him for as much information as possible. In counterintelligence, the name of the game was to identify the intelligence officers, watch them to discover who their agents were, and then try to catch the officer or agent red-handed in illegal activity.
China conducts its own intelligence operations according to a set of principles that are markedly different from Soviet practice. The Chinese do not run their intelligence operations to steal information in the sense people usually think of that term. Rather, their goal is to persuade individuals to give them needed information.
China's approach is to create situations in which it is possible for individuals to make their intelligence contributions. The Chinese seek to develop significant relationships with as many people as possible, in particular those of ethnic Chinese ancestry, whose thinking and value systems China's intelligence officers understand best. This they do on a very large scale and are quite content to let their efforts directed toward a given individual continue for many years.
Normally, the natural "consumers" of intelligence -- scientists, engineers, students, etc. -- are the ones who actually collect the data, not professional Chinese intelligence officers. The physical transfer of information typically takes place in China, and as a byproduct of a legitimate trip there by someone from the United States. The usual collection mechanism is simple elicitation. The visitor may be asked to give a talk to his colleagues in China, who then pepper him with questions that might induce at least a small security breach on his part.
China's general strategy is to collect a little information from a lot of people, in the certainty that the aggregate pile will be large. To collect the intelligence they need, the Chinese are willing to expend the manpower and effort needed to nurture relationships with large numbers of people. They also pay what it takes to sustain exchange programs that provide opportunities to make friends for China.
At the individual level, results from such a strategy are quite unpredictable and probably produce a great deal of information about toaster technology or advances in pig nutrition. When large numbers of people are involved, however, such an approach will produce at least some genuine nuggets of intelligence.
With regard to China the United States is facing a genuinely unconventional espionage program. Rather than seek to recruit sources in response to emerging national needs, such as its nuclear weapons program, China long ago embarked on a course of anticipating its intelligence needs by trying to develop as many sources as possible. In essence, China is now garnering the intelligence dividends of a long-term, "patience capital" investment program.
The natural question is what to do to counter this strategy, especially as regards sensitive facilities such as the U.S. national laboratories. A couple of things that we should not be doing:
We should not think of the problem as basically a security issue. You can triple-lock all the rooms at the national laboratories, build the fences higher and assign armed guards to accompany all foreign nationals there and still not be any safer from the sort of intelligence that China practices.
Don't get bogged down in asking inane questions about who knew what and when they knew it. Finding the right counterintelligence strategy and balancing it against the overall relationship with China is a complex problem, not a case for punishing someone for supposedly being asleep at the switch while plans were being filched.
The time is right for the U.S. intelligence community to develop a specific counterintelligence strategy for China. In fact, I think China's approach is deeply flawed and would be extremely vulnerable to the right countermeasures.
I offer just one example: During my years of observing China's attempts to recruit, exploit and debrief people visiting that country, I don't believe I ever came across a case in which the Chinese had successfully obtained sensitive or classified information from two or more people at one time. It appears to me that the collection end of China's intelligence bag of tricks is based on isolating individuals of interest, and that therefore some sort of "buddy system" would go a long way in the short term toward safeguarding official and commercial visitors to China targeted by the Chinese.
The writer was the FBI's chief analyst for Chinese intelligence for more than 20 years.