- - Tuesday, May 7, 2019


By James M. Olson

Georgetown University Press, $29, 233 pages

For more than three decades, James M. Olson ranked high among the CIA operatives tasked with pilfering secrets from the enemy — in those days, chiefly the Soviet Union. As a young officer he went underground, literally, to tap a buried cable connecting an outlying military post with a Moscow office.

He ended his career as chief of counterintelligence (CI, in intel jargon), one of the more ticklish positions at CIA. As one of the successors to the controversial James J. Angleton, Mr. Olson inherited a “disgraceful legacy that for years discredited the CI profession.” As he puts it, “Do operators really want to hear that there may be problems with their careers?”

He is credited with restoring CI’s reputation. In retirement, Mr. Olson joined the faculty of the Bush School at Texas A&M University.

Why is counterintelligence important? As Mr. Olson writes, it “consists of all the measures a nation takes to protect its citizens, secrets and technology from foreign spies.” And over the years some 80 countries (including friends) have attempted to spy on the United States.

Mr. Olson offers several commandments for effective counterintelligence. First on his list is taking the offensive — through double-agent and penetration operations. He cites several instances in which in-place CIA sources fingered American turncoats — including CIA officer Philip Agee and agency employee Larry Wu-Tai Chin, for instance, who spied for the Soviets and Chinese, respectively.

Knowing that the CIA is actively recruiting inside sources would keep the opposition off-balance. He would have American agents constantly probe rival agencies for recruits, to the point of sending bogus “walk ins” to foreign embassies to offer their services.

Conversely, he advocates strong in-house vigilance to detect enemy penetrations. If a colleague is acting suspiciously, or showing signs of sudden unexplained wealth, alert the counterintelligence office so that an investigation can be made. Such vigilance could have toppled CIA officer Aldridge Ames early on when he began lavish spending — with Soviet money, as events proved.

And why was not suspicion directed at Ana Montes, the ranking Cuban specialist in the Defense Intelligence Agency — and who made no secret of her admiration of the Castro regime, and her loathing of U.S. policy toward Latin America. She spied for Cuba for six years before she aroused suspicions of an alert co-worker.

As Mr. Olson laments, one reason persons remain silent about a suspicious colleague is the inbred American aversion to acting as an informer on acquaintances. “Had [Montes] kept her mouth shut,” Mr. Olson writes, she might have escaped exposure forever.

Even among veteran officers who should know better, persons who work in CI are not universally popular. An extreme view is voiced by a character in the 1962 Eric Ambler spy novel “The Light of Day.” He muses that if “asked to single out one specific group of men of being the most suspicious, unbelieving, unreasonable, petty, inhuman, sadistic, double-crossing set of [expletive deleted] in any language, I would say the people who run counter-espionage departments.” Fortunately, CI’s reputation has improved dramatically.

So, too, have the challenges. Mr. Olson declares, “China is without question the number one counterintelligence threat facing the United States,” a sentiment shared by serving CIA officers. Mr. Olson writes, “If the American people fully understood the audacity and effectiveness of this campaign, they would be outraged and would demand action.”

The intel community has voiced such warnings. Gen. James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, warned Congress several years ago that the Chinese have the means to “conceivably bring down the entire power grid” of the United States. He spoke of a “massive Armageddon-like attack against our infrastructure.”

The Chinese rely partly on a cadre of very quiet possible operatives. “Especially pertinent,” in Mr. Olson’s view, are the 350,755 Chinese students in the United States as of 2016-17. There are also some 4 million Chinese nationals living in the United States. The law of averages suggests some might be of value to Chinese intelligence.

These persons’ cooperation with Chinese intelligence would by no means be voluntary. President Xi Jinping runs his country with a tight fist. And, as The Economist reported in March, “an intelligence law of 2017 decrees that all Chinese organizations and citizens are obliged to cooperate with national intelligence-gathering operations. None may demur if spooks requisition their premises or equipment.”

In mid-April, the FBI announced a crackdown on Chinese scholars and researchers who sought to visit the United States. The same week, a one-time CIA officer of Chinese ancestry pleaded guilty to exposing 18 to 20 U.S. spies in China, an act that Mr. Olson noted “effectively wiped out the CIA’s stable of assets inside the Chinese government.”

Two longtime adversaries remain intelligence threats, Russia and Cuba. These and others “must be stopped,” Mr. Olson concludes, “spy catching is love of country personized.”

A five-cloak, five-dagger read for anyone interested in intelligence.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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