One or two fresh counterintelligence stories are reported in the media every few days. It is always a poor choice. More theft of priceless intellectual property, another enemy espionage service infiltration into American intelligence, and another loss of a trove of commercial secrets. Sadly, it is well known that our country lacks the ability to protect our trade secrets and governmental information.
The most shocking revelation comes from a private intelligence report that claims Chinese intelligence has gained access to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. At least 154 Chinese scientists who worked there were later hired to work on cutting-edge military projects in their home country, including the development of drones, hypersonic missiles, quiet submarines, and warheads that can penetrate the deep earth. The lab, famed for being the site where the atomic bomb was constructed, is a top secret institution that handles extremely sensitive work for the American government. What hasn’t Chinese intelligence dug itself into in America if Beijing managed to infiltrate the lab with a tiny army of spies?
Defending our nation against foreign intelligence agencies and their attempts to steal our military, diplomatic, and economic secrets is the core function of counterintelligence, which we are failing at. You might question after reading the headlines whether American counterintelligence is just ineffective. Quit pondering now. It is.
This week, a sizable, comprehensive report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was released, and it draws the same unpleasant conclusion. Even with some redactions, its 153 pages demonstrate that the American government is failing to keep our secrets secure. It is also a systemic failing. Regular media coverage of significant security lapses is a sign that counterintelligence is not taken seriously at all, rather than that there have been mistakes or mistakes have been made.
The little-known National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which has been known by a number of names since it was established in 2001 to provide our dispersed intelligence community with a central clearinghouse for counterintelligence concerns, is the subject of the committee’s understatedly damning report. The center, which is tasked with giving the intelligence community a strategic counterintelligence perspective, is evidently failing to achieve so, according to this report.
To be fair to the center, the study states that the counterintelligence danger we confront has altered significantly since the Cold War or even since the late pre-9/11 era, when the center was established. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), chairman of the committee, said during a public hearing on Wednesday to coincide with the release of the report that “the United States faces a drastically different danger scenario now than it did just a couple of decades ago”: “We need to significantly alter our counterintelligence posture if we’re going to safeguard the national and economic security of our nation in the face of new threats and new technologies,” the CIA stated.
However, the paper goes into great depth to describe the center’s flaws. The purpose of it is still unclear. Even while the center answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it is basically just a glorified staff office to which none of the big-letter agencies in the intelligence community are actually subordinates—at least not in any practical sense. It also has a funding and staffing shortage. Employees on loan from other intelligence community agencies and contractors make up the majority of the staff. There are still a lot of empty billets. While the major espionage agencies don’t appear to comprehend the exact role of the center, assignments there aren’t particularly viewed as career-enhancing at those agencies (to be fair, neither does the center at times because its authorities remain vague). Numerous agencies continue to carry out different aspects of counterintelligence, but none of them formally report to the center. It is clear from the center’s lack of a formal director since January 2021 that the Biden administration takes counterintelligence very seriously.
The study includes a number of suggestions, including strengthening and restructuring the center while defining its exact counterintelligence role in relation to other intelligence community institutions. Even if it’s easier said than done, doing so would be beneficial. It would be beneficial to establish a better-funded, more focused center with administrative clout, capable of developing and putting into action a strategic counterintelligence strategy for the American government and beyond. This would aid in safeguarding both private and official American secrets. It won’t be enough, though. In order to establish the FBI as the nation’s actual main counterintelligence agency, it would also be helpful to restructure the FBI into a full-time domestic intelligence service, as this column has suggested.
No one is held responsible for many security lapses when no one agency has that mission. Above all else, the government has to start treating counterintelligence like a serious matter once more. It’s been a forgotten concern for decades, if not just a bother. Whatever box-shifting the bureaucracy does won’t stop foreign spies from robbing America blind unless those attitudes alter.