China’s intelligence services are among the most aggressive at spying on the United States, followed by Cuban, Russian and Iranian spy agencies, according to the U.S. government’s top counterintelligence coordinator.
“These services are eating our lunch,” Joel F. Brenner, the new head of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, said in his first interview since being named to the counterspy post in August.
Mr. Brenner, a former inspector general at the National Security Agency, told The Washington Times that the U.S. remains the No. 1 target of “virtually every significant espionage service on the face of the Earth.”
China’s intelligence activities have been “very aggressive” at acquiring U.S. advanced technology, often before it is fully developed here. “The technology bleed to China, among others, is a very serious problem,” he said, noting that the FBI is improving its efforts to identify and protect sensitive technology.
Beijing also succeeded in penetrating, and thus frustrating, U.S. intelligence against China through Katrina Leung, a Los Angeles businesswoman who was a long-time FBI informant secretly loyal to Beijing, Mr. Brenner said.
Mr. Brenner’s office, known as NCIX, is working on a new presidential strategy for counterintelligence. The goal of the office is to provide strategic direction aimed at bolstering counterintelligence agencies, including the FBI, CIA and Pentagon counterspy units.
Another key priority is using counterintelligence techniques, such as turning foreign agents or recruiting supporters, against terrorist groups.
“Hezbollah or al Qaeda don’t do a terrorist operation without doing an intelligence operation first,” Mr. Brenner said. “They are very thorough and capable in the way they do their advance surveillance and reconnoitering. We’ve got to get better at that aspect of supporting counterterrorism, and that is one of our core missions here in this office.”
Additionally, the NCIX is pressing counterspies to do more to stop computer-based intelligence-gathering, something he called a growing threat.
“You can now, from the comfort of your own home or office, exfiltrate information electronically from somebody else’s computer around the world without the expense and risk of trying to grow a spy,” Mr. Brenner said.
“We’ve got to start addressing that in a big way,” he said. “Network vulnerability is a huge issue, and it’s an issue in the private as well as a public sector.”
Mr. Brenner also said he is trying to recruit more-capable people to join counterintelligence services.
“You can’t leave counterintelligence to the fanatics and paranoiacs,” he said. “We really need our best people, and so training and education and supporting national security studies is something we’re paying a lot of attention to.”
He also plans to speed up damage assessments, or lessons learned, after spy cases and to conduct aggressive follow-up to make sure recommended changes are implemented.
Currently, the NCIX is conducting a damage assessment of the Leung spy case, examining how Leung secretly spied for China by sexually entrapping two of the FBI’s most senior counterspies, FBI agents James J. Smith and Bill Cleveland.
The Leung case was a “very serious espionage case,” Mr. Brenner said, a view that contrasts with that of FBI officials who have sought to play down the spy case, saying it was mainly about improper sexual relations between the FBI informant and her handlers. Leung, through her lawyers, has denied spying for China.
Mr. Brenner said China, however, was in fact running Leung as their agent. “That was an intelligence operation, and it was a very successful intelligence operation,” he said. “It was a classic honey trap” - spy jargon for sexual entrapment.
Leung was initially charged in 2003 with spying for China, but the charges were dropped and she eventually pleaded guilty in 2005 to minor charges: making false statements and filing a false tax return. Smith also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.
In addition to China, Cuba’s intelligence services continue to pose a major intelligence threat, as do spies from Russia and Iran, Mr. Brenner said, noting that Cuban intelligence remains a “a very professional service.”
“They were trained by the KGB, and now they’re training the Venezuelans,” he said.
Russia’s intelligence service remains “very aggressive” against the United States, and “the Iranians also have a mature and capable service,” he said. All “are running significant operations against us.”
Overall, the problem of stopping foreign spies is daunting, both due to the number of spies and as a result of problems among U.S. agencies charged with stopping them, namely the FBI, domestically, and the CIA, overseas. Mr. Brenner said he is trying to reform counterintelligence as the mission manager within the office of the director of national intelligence.
Various counterspy agencies, from the Defense Department to the FBI and CIA, have regarded counterintelligence “as an intramural sport.”
“We’re trying to turn the [counterintelligence] community into a community in reality as well as in name,” he said.
“Americans are going to wake up one day and realize that the place in the world we have come to take for granted isn’t ours by some God-given right. We have to defend it,” he said.