The U.S. government may not have leaped into action upon hearing the warnings of an impending pandemic. Yet, despite what President Trump’s critics say, this may have been due to a lack of compelling and actionable intelligence. As The New York Times explained in a 2017 article, the systematic “dismantling” of foreign intelligence networks in China began in 2010, and human intelligence, or HUMINT, in that country is now crippled to nonexistent.
The Beijing government set about ferreting out and either imprisoning or executing intelligence sources on the ground in China. The precision with which the Chinese identified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives suggested to many that there was a mole within the agency. Another explanation of how the Chinese acted so swiftly is that Beijing counterintelligence specialists in the Ministry of State Security hacked into the CIA’s classified computer system used to communicate with its embedded sources. Between 2010 and 2012, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 CIA sources. Why were these sources so vital?
HUMINT sources provide not only information that is, in itself, valuable but also the critical context in which the intelligence information exists. Context is essential in understanding why events happen, not just that they do happen. Technical methods like satellite imagery, drone sensor information, or other technologies don’t do that. For example, why did 175,000 people leave the Wuhan, China area in a single day, and seven million residents flee Wuhan in January 2020? A reliable source on the ground would have been able to provide some compelling answers.
In her Fox News article, China decimated U.S. intelligence apparatus years ago, posing steep challenge during coronavirus cover-up, Hollie McKay provides an in-depth look at the Chinese process. It starts with taking out embedded sources, effectively blinding the U.S. The extent to which U.S. intelligence gathering in China was hurt is summed up in the same article by Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation: “We didn’t lose just a single spy. We lost entire networks,” Cheng says.
Further reducing visibility into what was going on, in addition to not having sources on the ground, members of the U.S. diplomatic mission were prevented from traveling to the Wuhan area. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains that “Restrictions on our diplomatic activities and the ability for our diplomats to engage people throughout China hinders our ability to develop situational awareness.” So, detailed information on what was happening was in short supply, and the details are essential in developing intelligence reports that prompt government leaders to take action.
Handcuffing Intel Operations
From the layman’s perspective, the quantity and quality of intelligence have been on the wane for a while. A 2003 History News Network article by Stephen Knott, Assistant Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, raised the negative impact of intrusive, meddling congressional oversight. In the 1970s, Senator Frank Church (D-ID) chaired a committee that claimed that an “assertive role” was needed to bring the U.S. closer in line to what the Founding Fathers envisioned for the United States and its clandestine operations.
The committee established an inspector general’s office in the CIA, requiring that the I.G. share information with the committee. Low and behold, suddenly, the agency was plagued with leaks. But not everyone thought leaks were bad. Representative Leo Ryan (D-CA) stated that leaks were an important tool in checking the “secret government.” Though the statement was made in the 1970s, it echoes some of the notions floating about today. The result of congressional oversight was then, as it is now, a chilling effect on engaging in operations that might have the slightest potential for controversy.
Again, from the Fox News report, Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society, pointed out: “Our intelligence gaps in China are large enough to drive a truck through, especially when it involves the biggest challenge in intel collection: elite politics.” For intelligence information to be compelling and actionable, that information should provide government leaders with answers to who, what, where, and when. Without people on the ground in China to answer those questions, the intelligence community is naïve to expect administration and congressional leaders to leap into action.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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