The CIA Blames Incompetence for Losing Dozens of Agents but Is That the Real Story?

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story that was frightening in a couple of aspects. First, it reported that the C.I.A. had sent a top-secret cable to all stations warning them that “troubling” numbers of agents and informants were being rounded up by our opponents and either executed or flipped into double agents.

The message, in an unusual top secret cable, said that the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence mission center had looked at dozens of cases in the last several years involving foreign informants who had been killed, arrested or most likely compromised. Although brief, the cable laid out the specific number of agents executed by rival intelligence agencies — a closely held detail that counterintelligence officials typically do not share in such cables.

The cable highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources.

While the C.I.A. has many ways to collect intelligence for its analysts to craft into briefings for policymakers, networks of trusted human informants around the world remain the centerpiece of its efforts, the kind of intelligence that the agency is supposed to be the best in the world at collecting and analyzing.

Ominously for a story focusing on sloppy handling of secret information, the existence of the cable and its contents only stayed hidden for a few days.

It has been widely reported that the C.I.A.’s covert networks in Communist China have been largely rolled up. Back in May 2017, the C.I.A. admitted that it had lost at least 18 agents inside of China. The operative word there is “admitted,” as the known body count quickly ballooned to at least three dozen. There was a brief spasm of counterintelligence work on our side (see Former C.I.A. Agent Busted for Passing Secrets to China and Arrested C.I.A. Officer Possessed Names of Covert Agents and Sit Down for This One — Former C.I.A. Officer Arrested as Chinese Spy: You’ll Never Guess Who Hired Him) and then things went back to normal, see While Eric Swalwell Was Sleeping With a Chinese Spy Adam Schiff Put Him in Charge of C.I.A. Oversight.

At the same time that Chinese assets were roaming free inside the C.I.A., the C.I.A. ignored the compromise of a communications system that it wished rather than knew or even believed to be secure and that cost at least 30 agents their lives. Yesterday, my colleague Jennifer Van Laar posted on the curious correlation between the loss of most of our covert operatives inside China and Hunter Biden’s bromance with Taiwanese businessman and suspected ChiCom agent Michael Lin. Biden and Lin became business associates, and Lin flew with Biden of Air Force 2. Read Are Hunter Biden’s China Travels With Michael Lin Related to the Loss of 30 C.I.A. Assets? for more details.

While the article blames sloppy tradecraft and complacency for the losses, the losses occur in several countries, one of which is our “ally” Pakistan, smells more like the standard practice of blaming middle management or the sales force for mistakes brought on by the top brass.

The C.I.A. was up to its ears in the attempted coup against President Trump. From 2016 until early 2021 was much more fixated on sabotaging President Trump and stymying investigations than it was on intelligence. To say that the C.I.A. has been more focused on being woke than on competence is no exaggeration.

It is not too much to presume that some of the exotic personnel choices they’ve made have caught up with them.

This article comes on the heels of the disastrous retreat from Afghanistan and involves lost assets in China, Iran, and Pakistan. It also stands to reason that these losses may have been tied to information compromised during the August 27 evacuation of the C.I.A. station in Kabul. When read in the context of this cable, a couple of recent articles seem to be part of a damage control effort.

This effort by the C.I.A.’s in-house stenographer at the Washington Post is simply not believable.

According to this, about half of all the U.S. citizens and Afghan SIV holders rescued were done so through the good offices of the C.I.A. If you want to believe that, go right ahead.

A story in today’s New York Post, C.I.A. admits too many informants are being killed in top secret memo to spies around the world as former staff reveal Iran and China executed networks of U.S. spies after agency’s classified communications system was breached, also reeks of damage control. The compromised communications system and two well-known turncoats are highlighted as though they were relevant. To make things flakier, there is zero evidence that the defector, USAF Tech Sergeant Monica Elfriede Witt, had anything to do with any compromise of personnel as she defected in 2012, and she doesn’t seem to have been cleared for programs that managed covert assets.

The top-secret cable leaking to the press so quickly also smells like it may have been a planned disclosure.

My guess is that this is the tip of the iceberg and that we are functionally blind on the Human Intelligence side of the house in China and in Southwest Asia.