The CIA has called on its frontline spies to step up their operational security around the world after dozens of informants have been arrested, killed or otherwise compromised in recent years, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
A cable sent last week from top US counterintelligence officials to every agency station and base included the exact number of human sources arrested or executed by rival services — a detail that is typically a closely guarded secret, the Times reported.
The document lays several issues at the feet of case officers responsible for recruiting new informants — including poor tradecraft, underestimating the counterintelligence prowess of foreign agencies, and focusing on recruitment without paying proper attention to potential risks. It goes on to remind officers to focus on those issues in addition to bringing new sources into the fold.
In recent years, reports have indicated that China has become particularly adept at tracking down and taking out US spy networks. The Times reported in 2017 that in one such case, at least 12 suspected informants had been executed by Beijing and several more had been imprisoned.
However, Tuesday’s report suggests that other US adversaries — including Russia, Iran and Pakistan — have similarly increased their capabilities, in some cases turning CIA sources into double agents. The cable sent last week did not give a number of how many informants had been compromised in this way.
Further hampering the CIA’s efforts, according to the Times, was a breach of the classified communications system that led to the exposure of networks in China and Iran. In addition, some officials believe treasonous US intelligence officers handed over information that led to the arrests and deaths of sources.
In November 2019, for example, former CIA case agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee was sentenced to 19 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage. Prosecutors say Chinese intelligence officers gave Lee more than $840,000 over a three-year period beginning in 2010 to divulge the names of human sources. Lee’s defense team denied that claim.
Months earlier, Monica Witt, a former Air Force intelligence officer, was indicted on charges of delivering national defense information to the government of Iran and conspiracy. Prosecutors said she turned over classified information about US intelligence officers after defecting to Iran in 2013.
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