Over four months into the global Wuhan Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is still scrambling to determine whether the virus originally leaked from a biolab in China. Many rely on this apparent delay by the IC in identifying the exact origin of COVID-19, to accept the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points and its cover story about this coronavirus’ innocuous origin.
However, American intelligence today is operating in China at a severe disadvantage. As reported by the New York Times (NYT) in 2017, between 2010 and 2013 the Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. clandestine operations in the country, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward. The result was that U.S. intelligence was virtually blinded during the formal rise of China’s President-for-Life, Xi Jinping in 2012, and is still suffering serious gaps in its China coverage.
Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.
The joint CIA-FBI investigation to uncover the Chinese attack on U.S. clandestine assets in China was reportedly code-named ‘Honey Badger.’ According to multiple former intelligence officials cited by Fox News, “the blow was felt hard — and some have questioned whether U.S. intelligence in the country ever adequately recovered.”
This was a well-planned, multifaceted strategic operation. First, blind your adversary. In this case, collect intelligence by hacking or other means to identify operatives. Then, remove those human assets or sources by imprisonment or execution. This is far more subtle than blinding our satellites, which would be an overt act of war,” explained one former U.S. Army intelligence leader. “The best intelligence is Human Intelligence, HUMINT, which comes from recruited assets or ‘agents.’ That is confirmed or denied by other collection such as IMINT (imagery) or SIGINT (signals collection).
Beyond just the current lack of clarity on the COVID-19 origins, the damage to US intelligence in China, along with drastically ramped up repression and censorship in China under Xi, kept policymakers in Washington from seeing the dramatic totalitarian and expansionist policy shift tasking place under Xi’s new leadership.
It was devastating. The setback probably delayed the U.S. national security community from fully comprehending Beijing’s move toward a more oppressive and assertive policy,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair for the Hudson Institute, told Fox News. “The gap in a sharper understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s true aims bought it more time to enact greater information suppression at home and more aggressive political warfare abroad.
As this breach vividly demonstrates, China’s intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities have grown dramatically, both quantitatively and qualitatively, offensively and defensively, in the past two decades. China’s espionage efforts are particularly massive inside the United States.
While U.S. officials remain confident that the exact origins of the virus that has claimed the lives of more than 143,000 people worldwide will eventually be brought to light, the U.S. must ramp up its own clandestine operations in and around China, while vigorously countering the Chinese espionage threat inside our country. Otherwise, we will be facing even bigger, and more deadly, surprises in the future.