Counterintelligence: organized activity of an intelligence service designed to block an enemy's sources of information, to deceive the enemy, to prevent sabotage, and to gather political and military information. Merriam-Webster
For those of you of an earlier generation, counterintelligence (CI) might bring up images of Mad Magazine's cartoon Spy vs Spy: two spies in trench coats and fedora hats, one white the other black, battling each other in a slapstick comedy way. A more accurate view is presented in the writings of John Le Carre and the associated TV series and movies. They reflect a battle of wits to catch spies and recruit sources in opposing intelligence services. I strongly recommend the Alec Guinness TV versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley's People for a visual feast of CI. The books are also great.
CI is practiced by all intelligence services. As the above definition notes, it is about keeping the opposing intelligence services from recruiting spies in your country and from identifying your own intelligence operations. We see it mostly as a defensive art.
As you can see from the above photo of U.S. intelligence agency seals, we have a large number of government agencies focused on intelligence collection, many of which have significant CI responsibilities. In fact, we have too many intelligence agencies that duplicate efforts, resources and making coordinating extremely difficult. Even though we have a National Counterintelligence Executive office to coordinate CI policy and programs, it lacks real authority to command the CI elements and actions within U.S. intelligence agencies. It lacks access to sensitive CI information collected by and operations run by these agencies. In short, we have 17 agencies doing their own thing, coordinating only when necessary on specific operations and issues with no real integrated strategy, despite having a Director of National Intelligence.
Why does this matter? Because it weakens our strategic CI posture. The FBI does its thing, the CIA does its thing, the Defense Department, which controls the vast majority of the intelligence budget, does its thing, etc. I would argue that we do not have a strategic CI strategy at all. We pass off efforts such as insider threats and cybersecurity strategies, but they really aren't. They are tactical responses to the intelligence efforts of our adversaries. We need a real strategy, something that all our agencies contribute to and advance. I will give you a couple of examples.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Cuban intelligence service (DGI) conducted a highly successful offensive CI program against the U.S. The Cubans dangled attractive Cuban recruitment targets at CIA officers. They allowed these individuals to be recruited as intelligence sources. These very same sources provided operational leads, that is, provided information on other Cubans who would be susceptible to recruitment. Over time, the CIA recruited a significant number of Cuban sources, something that is not easily done against a denied area country like Cuba.
This Cuban program allowed the DGI to identify CIA officers and CIA methodology for handling Cuban sources. It allowed the DGI to gather assessment information on CIA officers for future recruitment attempts. Worse, they blinded the US government on events in Cuba. The intelligence collected by the CIA was controlled by the DGI. If a crisis arose between both countries, the Cubans could have manipulated the US government's decision-making to its advantage. I am sure it wasn't just the CIA who was bamboozled by the Cubans, other agencies were as well, but they managed to bury the fact.
During the same time period, the East German intelligence service did the same thing. We don't know who came upon the idea first and shared it with the other, or if they developed the strategy independently. Whatever the sequence of events, both these nations developed an offensive CI strategy that proved highly successful at shutting down U.S. intelligence operations against those very same countries.
What these types of offensive CI operations also do is damage the morale of the targeted intelligence organization. It causes them to question questions their capabilities, makes them highly cautious when going after the particular target, and strengthens the belief in a nation such as Cuba that their intelligence service is all-powerful and it is suicide to cooperate with the U.S.
The U.S. government has proven incapable of organizing such a strategy. Many in the intelligence community will say such an effort is not needed. Others will say that we do very well in our CI efforts and that we have an effective strategy in place. Others will take it personally and say that I am attacking the fine men and women of the intelligence community. I challenge anyone to tell us how well we are doing against China if we have a strong CI program. Some professionals have claimed there are hundreds of Chinese spies in the U.S., both government and private sectors. China steals our secrets on a regular basis. If this is true I doubt we have an effective CI program.
It doesn't matter how many people are assigned to CI, what matters is that it be used effectively. We need an offensive CI strategy to help neutralize and cripple Chinese intelligence operations. I am not referring to DOD-style double agent operations. These types of operations yield modest results. Instead, We need an aggressive strategy that is coordinated across the entire U.S. intelligence community targeting Chinese and Russian intelligence operations.
There should be one individual or entity shaping and executing a national CI strategy that focuses on offensive CI, not just defense. If we play defense all the time we will lose. We need a strategy not only to stop our opponents’ intelligence operations, but a strategy that blinds them, causes them to doubt their own operations and their own capabilities. We need a winning strategy.