Every few days, a new counterintelligence story breaks in the media. It’s invariably a bad one. Another penetration of U.S. intelligence by a hostile spy service, another cache of industrial secrets lost, more theft of valuable intellectual property. Our national inability to safeguard our governmental and trade secrets is, alas, no secret.
The latest outrage is a private intelligence report that reveals that Chinese intelligence has penetrated Los Alamos National Laboratory, with at least 154 Chinese scientists who gained employment at the laboratory subsequently being hired back in China to develop cutting-edge military technology such as deep-earth-penetrating warheads, hypersonic missiles, quiet submarines, and drones. The lab, famous for being where the atomic bomb was developed, is a very secret facility that does highly sensitive work for the U.S. government. If Beijing has penetrated the lab with a small battalion of spies, what in America hasn’t Chinese intelligence burrowed itself into?
It’s now impossible to miss that we are failing at basic counterintelligence, that is, the business of defending our country from hostile intelligence services and their efforts to purloin our defense, diplomatic, and commercial secrets. Reading the headlines, you might wonder if American counterintelligence is simply broken.
Wonder no more. It is.
This week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a big, bipartisan, detailed report that comes to exactly that painful conclusion. Its 153 pages
, even with some redactions, establish that the U.S. government is failing to protect our secrets. Moreover, that failure is systemic. The regular drumbeat of media stories showcasing major security failures reflect not errors or mistakes so much as a basic unwillingness to take counterintelligence seriously at all.
The committee’s understatedly scathing report focuses on the little-known National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which has gone by several names since it was founded in 2001 to give our sprawling intelligence community a central clearinghouse for counterintelligence concerns. This report makes clear that the center, which is supposed to provide a strategic counterintelligence vision for the intelligence community, is failing to do that.
In fairness to the center, the report notes that the counterintelligence threat we face has changed dramatically since the Cold War, or even since the late pre-9/11 era when the center was founded. “The United States faces a dramatically different threat landscape today than it did just a couple of decades ago,” explained committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) at Wednesday’s open hearing to accompany the report’s release: “New threats and new technology mean that we have to make substantial adjustments to our counterintelligence posture if we are going to protect our country’s national and economic security.”
That said, the report elaborates the center’s shortcomings in detail. Its mission remains poorly defined. While the center reports to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it’s really a glorified staff shop no intelligence community big-letter agencies report to, certainly not in any operational sense. Furthermore, it’s understaffed and underfunded. The workforce consists largely of personnel on loan from other intelligence community agencies, plus contractors. Many billets remain unfilled. An assignment there isn’t seen as especially career-enhancing at those agencies, while the big spy agencies don’t seem to understand what the center’s job actually is (to be fair, neither does the center at times because its authorities remain vague). Counterintelligence as a mission remains divided among many agencies, none of which report to the center in any official sense. Showing how seriously the Biden administration takes counterintelligence, the center hasn’t had a formal director since January 2021, only an acting one.
The report makes several recommendations, including reforming and beefing up the center while clarifying its precise counterintelligence mission as it relates to other intelligence community agencies. That, while easier said than done, would help. Building a better-funded, more focused center with bureaucratic teeth, able to create and implement a strategic counterintelligence vision for the U.S. government and beyond, would help protect American secrets, private and governmental. But that will not be sufficient. It would also help to refashion the FBI as a full-time domestic intelligence service, as this column has recommended
, to create a true lead counterintelligence agency for the country.
When no single agency has that mission, nobody is held accountable for endless security failures. Above all, the government must start to take counterintelligence seriously again. For decades, it’s been an afterthought when not merely a nuisance. Until those views change, no amount of bureaucratic box-shifting will prevent foreign spies from robbing America blind.
John R. Schindler served with the National Security Agency as a senior intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer.