Skip to content

Never Underestimate Fanaticism

Why men fight in an organized fashion is one of history’s more interesting questions. Yes: men. Although many Western militaries today include women in their armed forces in considerable numbers, even in combat roles, this is a recent affectation whose duration we don’t yet know. Over the course of history, war has been an overwhelmingly male phenomenon in terms of direct participation.

Eons ago Thucydides explained that wars emerge from three factors: fear, honor, and interest. Over the centuries these factors have indeed played a big part in why wars happen. When fear, honor, and interest combine — one could detect all of them at work back in 2002-03, when many Americans (however misguidedly) believed Saddam Hussein needed to be taken out, for instance — war becomes much more likely.

Of course, many scholars of war tend to focus on less personal factors, preferring theoretical, jargon-laden discussions (at its worst: game theory) that tend to undervalue if not wholly ignore intangibles like honor and fear, which are things that touch average people more than they do academics.

Then there’s the reality, seldom mentioned among professors, that some people simply like war. Pointing out that war is a pursuit that many men over the centuries have simply found a lot of fun is not something that will endear you to the tenured or think-tank set.

Yet it’s undeniably true and always has been. This is tough to imagine if you’re a post-modern Westerner whose life is one creature comfort leading to another. If you can barely lift your eyes from your smartphone, you’re not likely to embrace a life of bloodshed and sacrifice just for the hell of it. But if you’re, say, a Somali teenager with zero life prospects outside jihad — which, in practice, is frequently just a cover for rampaging, raping, and plundering (all of which sound pretty cool to you, compared to being a broke fisherman without fish to catch) — it looks rather different.

The U.S. military in the twenty-first century has become a killing machine that is unique in military history. Particularly in our War on Terrorism (or whatever we’re calling it this week), our crack Special Operations Forces combined with precision real-time, multidisciplinary intelligence represent something that previous generations of warriors could only dream of, not to mention that American SOF has something approximating global reach.

Yet SOF is not the military, rather a small, self-selected portion of it. In the ranks of special operators you will find men who do like war, though they are usually sensible enough not to say so when reporters are around. They are not, however, representative of the whole U.S. military. Neither are SOF magic, media portrayals to the contrary, as numerous slip ups over the years demonstrate.

The American way of war as it has evolved in our era is a very expensive and technology-driven enterprise. Global strike capabilities are costly — so costly that only America can truly afford such things, and even our ability to keep paying for it may be in doubt. In such an environment it’s worthwhile to remember that motivation in war counts too. While fanaticism alone cannot offset firepower — ask the Japanese in World War Two how that worked out — it plays a larger role in warfare than most experts allow.

Field Marshal Bill Slim, commander of British ground forces in India and Burma in the latter half of WWII, said that every Japanese soldier would have won the VC, meaning the Victoria Cross, the highest British valor decoration. He spoke the truth, yet Slim’s 14th Army, once properly trained and equipped, pushed the outgunned Japanese Army back again and again, through the dense jungles of Southeast Asia, one sharp firefight at a time.

But what if fanaticism could be harnessed with solid fighting ability and modern weapons? That’s when things get interesting. We have relatively recent information on this. The performance of Hitler’s forces, particularly the more elite units, in the latter half of WWII, when defeat approached but the Wehrmacht showed no signs of capitulation, may offer a guide.

After Stalingrad and especially Kursk, when it was obvious to the sentient that Germany was going to lose the war, the National Socialist regime put a lot of effort into keeping morale high, despite the military realities. Hitler was determined to resist to the bitter end. The humiliation of November 1918 — his humiliation — when the German Army gave up when still on foreign soil, would not be repeated. They would fight until they could fight no more. So they did: in this wicked sense, Hitler achieved his aim.

In the last two years of the war, the term “fanatical” became commonplace in the fitness reports of German combat leaders — in a most positive way. Although it’s not politically correct to say so, a lot of German soldiers fought so hard because they believed in National Socialist ideals. Propaganda often works. Dispassionate analysis of the views of the average Landser reveals that Hitler’s worldview had taken hold, especially among younger Germans who came of age after 1933. With the addition of National Socialist Leadership Officers in 1944, mimicking Red Army practices, intense propaganda in all Wehrmacht units encouraged total resistance. By and large, this worked.

When the tactical acumen of the Germany Army, which generally outclassed all the Allies, was married to ideological fanaticism, the battlefield performance of the Wehrmacht astonished all comers. Despite the fact that the war was clearly lost after the failure to stem the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, German soldiers kept fighting like devils, against hopeless odds.

Even though two million German soldiers had already died on the Eastern Front — the best two million — before any Allied troops set foot in France, German forces routinely inflicted far higher casualties than they incurred, despite usually being severely outgunned. Recent popular American depictions of elites such as Rangers and Airborne units, filled with highly motivated and superbly trained volunteers, create a badly distorted image. In truth, the American Army was seriously outperformed by the Germans in Northwest Europe in 1944-45 at a tactical level. Non-elite divisions were filled with conscripts, many diffident and poorly trained. They were deeply dependent on massive fire superiority from artillery and aircraft to advance.

The verdict of a retired general and decorated Vietnam veteran that WWII’s U.S. Army, with its ill-trained conscripted infantry, represented a “self-killing machine” is harsh but not inaccurate. They were viewed as second-rate by the Wehrmacht, who feared American artillery and airpower but usually not “Ami” infantry, which was timid in battle. (Landser views of the British and Canadians were broadly similar.) There was respect for the Russians, in German eyes, since they were tough, brave and suffered enormous casualties. “They fought like men,” explained an elderly Wehrmacht veteran who fought on both the Eastern and Western fronts in WWII, whose views of “Amis” were less respectful.

To say nothing of the true fanatics of the Waffen-SS, Hitler’s political soldiers, who fought with astonishing ferociousness, which was sometimes visited on civilians too. The newly formed 12th SS Panzer Division, termed the Hitler Youth Division since its rank-and-file were fanatical teenagers, inflicted horrific casualties on Canadians in Normandy, despite being badly outnumbered and outgunned. Fanaticism, when combined with experienced officers and NCOs, was a lethal combination.

It’s easy to encounter misplaced nostalgia about “the Good War,” a view that I’ve seldom seen endorsed by American veterans who actually fought against the Wehrmacht close-up. Neocon cheerleaders continue to tell us that, if only Patton had been unleashed, WWII might have ended much earlier.

While Patton was a fine commander, he understood the forces at his disposal better than latter-day “experts” do. He knew that overwhelming American advantages in firepower were needed to compensate for infantry weakness. As he explained at the end of the bitter and mighty struggle, “I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know. The artillery did,” adding acidly, “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs; the American infantry needs all it can get.”

When the U.S. Army had to fight the Germans without support from masses of fighter-bombers and artillery fires, the results were not edifying. The disaster of the Hürtgen Forest, waged between September and December 1944, on the German border with Belgium, remains the longest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army, yet has been forgotten by the American public and is unlikely to feature in a Spielberg movie anytime soon.

This offensive never made much strategic sense; worse, it pushed American infantry into dense woods, where advantages in airpower and artillery mattered little. As a result, third-rate German units comprised of teenagers and old men made mincemeat of American rifle battalions, with whole units evaporating, even running away in the forested slaughter. “Passchendaele with tree-bursts” was Hemingway’s epitaph for the debacle, which cost the U.S. Army tens of thousands of casualties really for nothing.

Fortunately, the U.S. Army of today — all-volunteer, highly trained and motivated — resembles the Rangers and Airborne of 1944 more than the mediocre line infantry that even Patton often couldn’t do much with. But fanatics they are not. In a democracy this is undoubtedly a good thing, since the last thing we need is a praetorian class of politically motivated killers.

Yet fanatics still exist and some of them are our implacable enemies. Salafi jihadists who have officially been at war with the West since 1998 (it took most Americans until September 2001 to notice) are undeniably fanatics who embrace war for its own sake, citing theological justifications for their violent conduct. Many seem happy to “martyr” themselves for the cause and in battle they can resemble Japanese soldiers of WWII, committed to die in place.

Throughout the last Iraq War, even such fanaticism could not last against American firepower. During the Second Battle of Fallujah in late 2004, a rare stand-up fight against jihadists, American force and firepower killed off the resistance, professionally and slowly, and many of the foreign fighters fought to the bitter end and died without thought of surrender, as if they held Iwo Jima. But the outcome was never in doubt.

Al-Qa’ida has always valued fanaticism over tactical finesse. While the mujahidin fear American technology, which they cannot hope to counter — especially the “hand of Allah” as they term U.S. drones, which rain sudden death on them, seemingly out of nowhere — their views of U.S. troops are less awestruck. As a captured foreign fighter, a veteran of multiple Al-Qa’ida expeditions including Chechnya, explained, directly echoing Wehrmacht comments, the Americans have amazing equipment but were often timid about closing in for the kill — unlike the Russians who, although evil in the way they kill Muslim civilians indiscriminately, “get in the cave with us.” Some things never change.

The Islamic State, which I’ve repeatedly explained how to defeat, continues to prosper in Syria and especially Iraq. Their dream of a Salafi caliphate encompassing big chunks of the Middle East no longer seems like a madcap fantasy. Worse, they increasingly appear to be a different sort of threat than Al-Qa’ida has been.

It’s no secret that much of Da’ish’s success in Iraq stems from the reality that many of its founders and leaders are former Iraqi officers from the Saddam era. Such veterans of the Ba’thist military and intelligence services have made Da’ish a serious threat to the Iraqi state that was cobbled together after the American invasion of 2003. Many Da’ish commanders and staffers are professionals who know their ground and know how to fight.

When these skills are matched up with Da’ish’s strong combat motivation, which is grounded in a heady brew of religious fervor and Sunni sectarian resentments, something terrifying results. This is not to say that Da’ish cannot be defeated by American forces — they would meet the same end that the Japanese did on Okinawa in the spring of 1945 — yet it would not necessarily be any sort of walkover. Moreover, the longer that the Obama administration continues to not know what to do in Iraq, lazily ad-hoccing its way to strategic defeat, the better Da’ish will get at conquering and waging war.

Allowing Da’ish to become a serious threat to order in the Middle East was foolish. Permitting them to grow into a serious fighting force whose combination of fanaticism and tactical ability can test the skills and resolve of Western militaries is a tragedy, because it’s needless. Let’s hope we will find the strength to crush Da’ish before the cost of that victory becomes prohibitive in life and treasure.

The Snowden Story Slowly Unravels

I am grateful to the German newspaper BILD for running this piece as “Wie Snowdens schöne Geschichte langsam zerfällt” For the benefit of readers who don’t know German, I’m providing the English version — enjoy!

Exactly two years after Edward Snowden went public with his exposure of Western intelligence secrets, causing a global sensation, the basic facts of his case are unraveling. Many who welcomed his exposure of National Security Agency domestic operations, for instance metadata collection, were nevertheless troubled by his move to Moscow.

Taking up residency under Putin’s roof, which Snowden shows no signs of leaving, was never a good fit with his status as a freedom-loving “whistleblower.” Russia, run by a former KGB man, spies on its citizens far more aggressively than any of the Western countries whose secrets have been exposed by Snowden – to say nothing of the mysterious deaths of politicians, journalists and others who fall afoul of Putin and his Kremlin.

Ironically, given the intense debate over the Snowden revelations in Germany, it has been this country where the real unraveling of the storyline has begun. The end of the year-long Federal inquiry into Snowden’s allegation’s led by Attorney General Harald Range, without any charges against NSA, has disappointed many admirers of Snowden. Yet this inquiry failed due to a lack of hard evidence. Some of the documents offered as “proof” of NSA espionage against Chancellor Angela Merkel are copies, not originals, and therefore lack probative value.

Moreover, Snowden does not seem to really understand much of what he has exposed. As a Federal prosecutor explained, Snowden provided “no evidence that he has his own knowledge” (keine Hinweise dafür, dass er über eigene Kenntnisse verfügt). He is in no position to actually explain what NSA does.

Although Snowden has presented himself as a “spy” at the heart of NSA’s global espionage network, the mundane truth is that he was an IT contractor who never actually worked on NSA’s signals intelligence program. In his last assignment, Snowden analyzed Chinese cyber capabilities against the United States – which may appear suspicious given the recent unprecedented hacking of U.S. Government databases, an apparent Chinese operation – but that job was on the Agency’s defensive side, protecting sensitive government communications. Snowden is no expert on NSA’s collection of foreign communications.

Worse news for Snowden’s admirers comes with a report that Western secret services have been badly harmed by his compromise. Western intelligence has pulled agents out of “hostile countries,” fearing for their safety, after both the Russian and Chinese intelligence services have cracked into Snowden’s cache of some 1.7 million purloined documents and learned their vast secrets. “We have now seen our agents and assets being targeted,” explained a British official. The result, said a British intelligence source, has been “incalculable damage.”

Although London is not commenting on the report’s details, as Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond explained, “nobody should be in any doubt that Edward Snowden has caused immense damage.”

This is commonsensical as the Snowden compromise represents the greatest loss in the history of Western intelligence. It included some of the most closely guarded secrets of numerous Western intelligence agencies. Worse, among those 1.7 million documents are 900,000 files stolen from the Pentagon, military secrets that have nothing to do with protecting civil liberties.

This British report does immense harm to the Snowden cause because from the outset Ed and his journalist partners have repeatedly stated that his huge data cache is safe. Snowden said he took no NSA documents to Russia, insisting a few months after his move to Moscow, “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.” Although Snowden asserted he had not taken his NSA files to Russia with him, his close partner Glenn Greenwald stated, three weeks after Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, that the records were still in Ed’s possession.

The Snowden inner circle has been unable to keep their story straight about where these very sensitive documents are, yet they have insisted that the purloined secrets Snowden stole from NSA are safe — somewhere. Greenwald has openly mocked suggestions that the Russians or Chinese could get their hands on them.

This appears like vain silliness to anyone acquainted with the capabilities of the Russian and Chinese intelligence services. Where was Snowden during the last ten days of May 2013, after he left Hawaii but before he checked into Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1? It smacks of naïveté to think Beijing did not expect something in return for giving Snowden sanctuary en route to Moscow.

Moreover, it is surpassingly naïve not to think that Russian intelligence has secured Snowden’s cooperation in exchange for sanctuary. Putin’s FSB is not motivated by charity and access to those 1.7 million documents, a goldmine for the Kremlin, would be the normal quid pro quo for offering refuge to an American on the run with valuable secrets.

Defectors are always debriefed at length by the host’s security service, this is a constant in the real world of espionage. Russian defectors to the United States collaborate with American intelligence, and nobody is seriously suggesting that Putin’s FSB is more liberal.

Every Western intelligence defector to Moscow since 1917 has collaborated with the Kremlin. There is no choice, as Snowden has surely discovered. “Of course” Snowden is collaborating with the FSB, explained Oleg Kalugin, the former head of KGB foreign counterintelligence, over a year ago, stating the reality of how the spy game gets played.

It remains an open question when Snowden’s relationship with Russian intelligence began, but denying that he has one now, after two years in Russia, reflects a deep misunderstanding of how Putin, his Kremlin, and the FSB operate.

For two years, Edward Snowden and his advocates have spun an enticing yarn about a pure-hearted and heroic lover of freedom who “told the truth” about Western democracies. In reality, the “whistleblower” may be no more than a pawn of countries that seek to harm the West.

While discrediting the intelligence work of law-based democracies, Snowden’s efforts have enabled espionage by less free countries. We now have reports that the computer of Chancellor Angela Merkel was a victim of May’s massive cyberattack on the Bundestag, which German security officials believe was Russian in origin.

The BfV has repeatedly warned that Russian and Chinese espionage against Germany is rising fast, far outpacing the efforts of NSA or any Western spy services to learn Berlin’s secrets. Now that Snowden’s story has begun to unravel, it’s time to assess security threats more honestly.

China’s Hack Just Wrecked American Espionage

The mega-hack of the Office of Personnel Management continues to get worse for Washington. Revelations of a second, even deeper intrusion into OPM servers bring distressing news that Pentagon employees, including intelligence personnel, are among the millions of Americans whose personal and security data have been compromised.

As The Daily Beast reported, this hack constitutes a disaster for Washington’s counterintelligence operatives. Armed with very private information about the personal lives of millions of security clearance holders, foreign intelligence services can blackmail and coerce vulnerable officials. To make matters worse, foreign spies can use data purloined from OPM background investigations to head American mole-hunters off at the pass. For Beltway counterspies, the OPM breach will take decades to set right.

But there’s an even more serious aspect of this compromise: the threat it poses to American intelligence operations abroad, particularly to officers serving under various false identities, or “covers,” overseas. The Intelligence Community employs myriad cover mechanisms to protect the true identity of its spies posted outside the United States. Cover protects our officers and allows them to conduct their secret work without drawing as much attention to themselves. While many intelligence officers pose as diplomats, that is only one option, and some covers are deeper than others.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast

OPM Hack Is Serious Breach Of Worker Trust

“We cannot undo this damage. What’s done is done, and it will take decades to fix.”

This morning National Public Radio had me on to discuss the impact of the mega-hacks of OPM, which I’ve written about here, here and here this week. I discussed several things, including the grave violation of the trust (and the personal secrets) of millions of Americans that this failure has caused.

I said from the outset that this incident was a very big deal, indeed disastrous, from any security or counterintelligence perspective, and sadly this week’s ever-worse revelations have demonstrated that my pessimism was correct.

You can listen to my interview with NPR’s Scott Simon here.

Snowden is a Fraud

In the two years since the Edward Snowden saga went public, a handful of people who actually understand the Western signals intelligence system have tried to explain the many ways that the Snowden Operation has smeared NSA and its partners with salacious charges of criminality and abuse. I’ve been one of the public faces of what may be called the Snowden Truth movement, and finally there are signs that reality may be intruding on this debate.

No American ally was rocked harder by Snowden’s allegations than Germany, which has endured a bout of hysteria over charges that NSA was listening in on senior German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although these stories included a good deal of bunkum from the start, they caused a firestorm in Germany, particularly the alleged spying on Merkel, which was termed Handygate by the media.

In response, Germany tasked Federal prosecutors with looking into the matter and, they if determined there was sufficient evidence, to press charges against NSA for breaking stringent German privacy laws. The investigation, led by Harald Range, Germany’s attorney general, has been slow and diligent, examining all possible evidence about NSA spying on Germany. Here Snowden’s purloined information would play a key role.

However, the matter has become politically fraught. In the first place, senior German security officials were circumspect about the case, since Berlin is heavily dependent on NSA for intelligence on vital matters like terrorism. Worse, follow-on Snowden revelations showed that the BND, German’s foreign intelligence service, and NSA are close partners, and the BND has itself been spying on EU neighbor states that are friendly to Germany such as Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

To top it off, last month’s major hack of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, turns out to have been the work of Russians, apparently state-sponsored. In reality, the major spy threats to Germany are not NSA, but Russians and Chinese, as I’ve been saying for some time — and, to be fair, so have German security officials, though they got drowned out in the public hysteria over Snowden.

Now we learn that Range’s prosecutors are dropping their year-long Handygate inquiry, for want of hard evidence. Federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe aren’t saying much, beyond that they simply don’t have evidence of spying that would stand up in court. Back in December, Attorney General Range offered a warning about the dubious nature of much of the “evidence” against NSA:

The document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database. There is no proof at the moment which could lead to charges that Chancellor Merkel’s phone connection data was collected or her calls tapped.

Got that? That’s the polite, legalistic way of saying the Snowden claims are backed by faked NSA documents, as has been clear for some time to anybody who understands counterintelligence and the SIGINT system. This should surprise no one, since using fake or doctored Western intelligence documents to embarrass democracies is a venerable tradition for Russian intelligence — the proper espionage term is Active Measures — and since Snowden’s been in Moscow for the last two years and shows no signs of going anywhere else anytime soon, two and two can be added together here.

To make matters worse for Snowden’s fans, a report about the Handygate inquiry being dropped in the magazine Der Spiegel, which has been a key player in the Snowden Operation, includes the painful truth. While some have clamored to get Snowden out of Moscow to testify before prosecutors, Berlin understood how politically tricky that would be. Moreover, prosecutors determined that Ed simply didn’t have much to say.

As a prosecutor explained, Snowden provided no evidence that he has his own knowledge” (keine Hinweise dafür, dass er über eigene Kenntnisse verfügt). In other words, Ed doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. This is not news to anybody who understands how NSA and the Allied SIGINT system actually work.

Snowden was an IT guy, not a SIGINT analyst, and in his final position he was working as a contracted infrastructure analyst for NSA’s Information Assurance arm, i.e. the Agency’s defensive side, which protects classified U.S. communications networks. Snowden was never a SIGINTer, working on the intelligence collection side of the house, and he doesn’t seem to understand how that complex system, built over decades, actually functions.

This is why Snowden has made so many odd, contradictory, and even outlandish statements over the past couple years about SIGINT, which have caused those who actually understand how NSA works to scratch their heads … Ed doesn’t know any better.

It’s been obvious for some time to insiders that, for reasons we still don’t fully understand, Snowden decided to steal something like 1.7 million classified documents from NSA servers through internal hacks. About 900,000 of those documents came from the Pentagon and have nothing to do with intelligence matters.

There’s no way Snowden could have read more than a tiny fraction of what he stole, nobody has that much time, and it’s clear now that Ed, an IT guy and a thief, who was never any sort of “spy” as he portrays himself, would not have understood all those NSA documents he made off with anyway.

Snowden’s been living under the protection of Putin’s Federal Security Service now for two years, functioning as a pawn of Russian intelligence. When his secret relationship with the Kremlin started remains an open question, but that he has one now can only be denied by the foolish (witness the weak lies told by his supporters about Ed’s FSB ties), since when you defect, you wind up in the care of that country’s security service. That’s how it works in America, and I don’t hear anybody seriously suggesting that Putin’s Kremlin is more liberal in these matters than the FBI or CIA.

In light of these revelations from Germany, it’s worth pondering whether Ed was always just a pawn, a talking head, for others with agendas to harm Western security. As we’re now in the Cold War 2.0 with Russia that I warned you about after Putin’s theft of Crimea, this seems like a more than academic question.

For two years now, I’ve been trying to inform the public about what’s really going on behind the Snowden Operation, using my understanding of how the SpyWar actually functions, and I’ve gotten a lot of grief for it from Ed’s hardcore fans. News out of Germany can’t help but lead me to point out that, well … I told you so.

China’s Spies Hit the Blackmail Jackpot

With each passing day the U.S. government’s big hacking scandal gets worse. Just what did hackers steal from the Office of Personnel Management? Having initially assured the public that the loss was not all that serious, OPM’s data breach now looks very grave. The lack of database encryption appears foolhardy, while OPM ignoring repeated warnings about its cyber vulnerabilities implies severe dysfunction in Washington.

To say nothing of the news that hackers were scouring OPM systems for over a year before they were detected. It’s alarming that intruders got hold of information about every federal worker, particularly because OPM previously conceded that “only” 4 million employees, past and present, had been compromised, including 2.1 million current ones. Each day brings worse details about what stands as the biggest data compromise since Edward Snowden stole 1.7 million classified documents and fled to Russia.

Then there’s the worrisome matter of what OPM actually does. A somewhat obscure agency, it’s the federal government’s HR hub and, most important, it’s responsible for conducting 90 percent of federal background investigations, adjudicating some 2 million security clearances every year. If you’ve ever held a clearance with Uncle Sam, there’s a good chance you’re in OPM files somewhere.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast

The OPM Hacking Scandal Just Got Worse

The other day I explained in detail how the mega-hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s internal servers looks like a genuine disaster for the U.S. Government, a setback that will have long-lasting and painful counterintelligence consequences. In particular I explained what the four million Americans whose records have been purloined may be in for:

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86, here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

The bad news keeps piling up with this story, including reports that OPM records may have appeared, for sale, on the “darknet.” Moreover, OPM seems to have initially low-balled just how serious the breach actually was. Even more disturbing, if predictable, is a new report in the New York Times that case “investigators believe that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.”

We can safely replace “may” in that quote with “almost certainly did” since for Chinese intelligence that would be some of the most valuable information in any of those millions of OPM files. Armed with lists of Chinese citizens worldwide who are in “close and continuing contact” (to cite security clearance lingo) with American officials, Beijing can now seek to exploit those ties for espionage purposes.

This matters because, while many intelligence services exploit ties of ethnicity to further their espionage against the United States — Russians, Cubans, Israelis, even the Greeks — none of the major counterintelligence threats to America are as dependent on blood ties as the Chinese. Simply put, in its efforts at recruiting spies abroad, Beijing is often uncomfortable operating outside its ethnic milieu. Spies run by Beijing who are not ethnic Chinese are very much the exception. This poses less of a problem for them that it might seem, however, as there are something like fifty million “overseas Chinese” worldwide, including about four million living in the United States.

Nearly every espionage case in the United States involving Beijing comes down to the ethnic angle, somewhere. To cite only a few examples, among many, Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a CIA translator/analyst, passed highly classified information to Beijing for over thirty years. Katrina Leung managed to severely damage FBI intelligence against China for years, in a complex and messy operation that confounded the Bureau. Then there’s the messy case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, whom U.S. counterintelligence believed passed significant amounts of classified nuclear information to Beijing. Most recently was there was the case of Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, a Federal worker who was caught having unreported meetings with a Chinese regime official.

It should be noted that all the persons mentioned in the previous paragraph were born in China (Lee was born in Taiwan) then immigrated to the United States. They seem to have been persuaded to betray their adopted country on behalf of their native land. Ms. Chen, against whom serious charges were recently dropped, has alleged ethnic bias in the FBI’s pursuit of her, as did Wen Ho Lee. Members of Congress and ethnic activists have joined that chorus too. Interestingly, Beijing has sung the same tune, with regime outlets alleging that anti-Chinese prejudice is at the root of U.S. counterintelligence efforts. However, whatever blame here lies in Beijing, not Washington, DC, since it is China that is exploiting its nationals abroad to further their espionage.

Beijing also uses its citizens abroad to facilitate espionage. An interesting recent case in Hawaii, which is something of a hotbed of Chinese spying, given the large number of U.S. military commands housed on Oahu, involved a retired U.S. Army officer and defense contractor working at U.S. Pacific Command who apparently got honey-trapped by a fetching young Chinese student (this is being a common Chinese tactic). Benjamin Bishop has been sentenced to more than seven years in jail for stealing classified information from work and passing it to a Chinese woman less than half his age, who was in the United States on a student visa.

The modus operandi of Chinese intelligence and its operations abroad are understood by the FBI and the Intelligence Community. However, the extent of the information loss in the OPM hack is so vast that all the counterintelligence awareness in the world may not be able to offset the advantage in the SpyWar that Beijing has won with this vast data theft. If you are (or have been) employed with the Federal government and have listed Chinese persons in any way on your SF86, it’s time to be vigilant.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,028 other followers