An Intelligence Perspective – Chinese Intelligence Targeting the U.S.

By: - October 22, 2020

As is a common refrain from the The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) leadership, their form of communism and their intelligence operations come with Chinese characteristics. While we’ll save the economic system established by Deng Xiaoping in the early-‘80s for a different article, let’s consider what Chinese intelligence characteristics are unique and how they have compromised some of the most prominent institutions and families in the U.S.

Chinese intelligence operations directed against the U.S. are a comprehensive mosaic of complimentary and interlaced capabilities, with none of the foreign policy considerations or restrictions imposed on nearly every other nation state. These capabilities include computer network exploitation (CNE), computer network attack (CNA), traditional espionage source recruitment and handling operations, a rather unique influence operations program, and a similarly unique seeding or direct penetration program. The impact is both impressive and unprecedented in modern times.

The two most significant and impactful organizations associated with Chinese intelligence are the ‘civilian’ service, Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the People’s Liberation Army 2nd Department (2PLA). Unlike the U.S., Russia and other sophisticated national intelligence and counterintelligence infrastructures, the PRC directs and allocates resources more effectively if not efficiently. These complimentary capabilities create a far more complex threat than the U.S. is willing to recognize much less address in any meaningful way.

So, you might ask, what does this look like and how does it differ from the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC)? In short, it is stunningly different, so much so that the myopic intelligence and counterintelligence leadership in the USIC spend more time arguing about it than developing a strategy. Not that a strategy is even possible, given the self-limiting norms of the U.S. federal bureaucracy writ large, which actually believes that the U.S.’s only real power is in its role as a moral authority, representing international human rights and globalization.

In contrast, the PRC routinely authorizes its services to engage in activity which would be considered acts of war in any other scenario. That includes millions of daily CNA against the U.S. ‘.gov’ and ‘.mil’ websites, and the CNE theft of public sector secrets, personal information, and private sector intellectual property. These technical collection efforts are complimented by the insertion of tens of thousands of intelligence officers and assets into the U.S. government, research institutions, academia, media, the military industrial complex, utilities, technology, medical and other key industries. These active measures are furthered through the systematic compromise of individuals associated with prominent companies, families and sports personalities to influence the perceptions of Americans and other western nations towards China and its activities.

The scope and breadth of PRC intelligence activities are effected through unfettered and creative use of university students to both conceal and augment PRC intelligence CNA and CNE activities against the U.S. infrastructure. Through these efforts China has compiled data on U.S. persons which aids in their profiling of individuals in key employment positions, including the compromise of U.S. intelligence officer identities even prior to their first assignment. Likewise, it has accelerated China’s technological development in space, aeronautics, ground forces and below the sea, while revolutionizing the production of advanced technology, particularly in the communication sector. Consistent with their wholistic approach, China’s production of fibre and 4G telecommunication systems, without the underlying development cost, led to the adoption of low-cost systems across the globe, furthering China’s intelligence collection on the behaviour and location of targeted individuals and groups.

China’s aggregation of data on individuals, groups and organizations is truly staggering and it is the underpinning of human intelligence (HUMINT) activities globally. Against the U.S. the Chinese government was able to exploit their large economy and relatively inexpensive workforce to steal technology through directed partnership requirements for companies operating in China, and created the next generation of collection through insertion of intelligence officers and assets into the U.S. corporate infrastructure. Through these connections and others in academia and research, Chinese intelligence continues to insert its intelligence collectors into U.S. institutions, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the broad foreign policy community.

A simple but effective means to manage information by the MSS is the ‘recruitment’ of prominent individuals associated with organizations, government institutions and families to influence perceptions of the American public. The origin of this approach is a deeply cultural belief that tranquility represents strength of the state, and is one reason the Chinese leadership is so responsive to any form of protest or commentary from foreign leaders regarding their regional military posture, trade and financial practices, IPR theft, etc. However, tranquility also represents the status quo and when it comes to the status quo for China it means continuation of a yearly trade imbalance north of $400 Billion dollars, a yearly stolen intellectual property value of approximately $600 Billion dollars, socio-economic expansion of Chinese interests in Africa, Latin America and South Asia, controlling interests in strategic waterways from the Panama Canal to Piraeus to the South China Sea, fibre and 5G telecom infrastructure from Ottawa to Berlin, and expanded access to natural resources from Africa to the Arctic.

These assets are prominent and senior individuals from across the U.S. public sector as well as the academic, business, medical, legal, and research communities. Many are likely unwitting of their association with PRC intelligence, but the common pattern among them is they receive some form of preferential treatment, such as access and travel facilitation, and often an indirect payment in the form of paid travel expenses, gifts or sub-market prices on personal or professional products or direct payment by way of corporate investment, contracting fees, etc. In exchange, contact is maintained with their Chinese friend, business associate or government official, with whom they discuss the latest unfortunate bilateral misunderstanding and lament the presence of reasonable voices who understand China and the importance of economic ties and regional stability. The end result are favourable policies in one instance or, in another, a statement by the asset to influence public perception. This statement may or may not be aided by language provided by the handling officer but, in each case, the entire relationship is directed and funded by PRC intelligence.

This subtle approach augments more traditional HUMINT espionage operations, with the active targeting, development, recruitment and handling of reporting sources on issues of interest to senior PRC leadership. Although Chinese intelligence has expanded their focus significantly since the 1980s, it still relies heavily on individuals with personal or professional ties to the mainland. It is unlikely that a single individual with these ties has not been screened by intelligence during travel into China, and almost inconceivable to the author that an individual with access to information of interest to Chinese intelligence and who has repeatedly travelled to the mainland has not been technically attacked and directly or indirectly approached by Chinese intelligence to assess or directly request assistance in their collection efforts. Such is the aggressive and staggeringly pervasive posture of the intelligence community on the mainland, and abroad.

Awareness is the best defense against the impressive resources and dedication of Chinese intelligence in targeting the United States. Two of my former colleagues from China Operations in the CIA were or became spies for China, one with familial ties back to Hong Kong and the other with significant exposure to PRC intelligence through his official duties. The latter was apparently weaker and more vulnerable than his counterparts. Regarding the latter, it is unclear to the author whether he was seeded into CIA or became a reporting source in response to real or threatened pressure applied to the family. What is clear, however, is that Chinese intelligence is actively seeking to seed the USIC and other critical infrastructure with intelligence officers, rather than just recruit reporting sources, and it will take a more sophisticated approach to countering this effort than the ham-fisted, one size fits all counterintelligence approach currently directed by the Equal Employment Opportunity and institutional legal staff. We discussed diversity, inclusion and demographics in our last article and will discuss the role of attorneys in an intelligence service in a follow-on article, but this is where the rubber meets the road.