The evidence that China successfully ran a double agent against the FBI for nearly twenty years is a sign of the dismal state of U.S. counterintelligence (CI). This agent likely compromised every significant FBI counterintelligence operation against China over the past two decades. Worse yet, this agent, Katrina Leung, may have been a conduit for passing disinformation to high government officials, including presidents.
When suspicions first emerged about Mrs. Leung more than a decade ago, they were brushed aside by her FBI handler, who was also her lover. When suspicions grew stronger, senior officials dragged their feet so badly that FBI Director Robert S. Mueller was forced to seek investigative assistance from outside the Bureau.
The Leung case is the latest in a string of CI failures to rock the Bureau. By definition, the mission of CI is to identify, penetrate and neutralize foreign intelligence services targeting U.S. secrets. The conduct of domestic CI operations is exclusively entrusted to the FBI, but there is growing concern that the Bureau is overmatched by foreign intelligence services, especially the Chinese. There are three known cases involving the Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear secrets since the 1970s. The Bureau and the Justice Department have yet to obtain an espionage conviction in any of these cases. Two suspects received little more than a slap on the wrist and a third got off scot free. Leung may have compromised at least two of these cases.
The FBI eventually nailed CIA spy Aldrich Ames and FBI spy Robert Hanssen, but only after both had done enormous damage for years. It is commonplace to blame former Director Louis Freeh and the Clinton administration for these failures. CI capabilities, especially those against China, were seriously degraded during the Clinton years, but the Bureau’s record of CI failures stretches all the way back to World War II. J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau didn’t take the Soviet espionage threat seriously until 1943, when the Bureau established its first analytic effort devoted to Soviet espionage. By that time, Soviet agents had thoroughly penetrated the Roosevelt administration. It took nearly five decades, the fall of the former Soviet Union, and the opening of some Soviet intelligence files to learn just how deeply the Soviets had penetrated the wartime Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.
Mueller and others cite “management lapses” to explain this latest FBI disaster. Not the least of these “management lapses” was Leung’s ability to seduce and then conduct long-running extra-marital affairs with two of the Bureau’s top China CI supervisory agents. Current and retired agents tell reporters that these agents violated nearly every rule and procedure governing agent operations. But the larger problem appears to be the willingness of the Bureau to look the other way when suspicions about one of its “assets” arise. This clearly happened in the Wen Ho Lee/Kindred Spirit nuclear espionage case. It may not be a coincidence that Leung went to work for the Bureau in 1982, the same year that Wen Ho Lee first came to the Bureau’s attention. Like Leung, Lee worked for the FBI as an “informational asset” for at least a decade. Many suspect that Lee, like Leung, also “doubled” his Bureau case officers.
But “management lapses” alone can’t account for our CI failures. There is a growing belief that the current U.S. CI system is broken, probably beyond repair. A variety of proposals have been put forward to replace or improve the current system. Senator John Edwards (D NC), for example, has proposed the creation of a homeland intelligence agency. This agency’s mission would be the collection of domestic intelligence, a mission critical to successful CI as well as counter-terrorism. Others, like retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former National Security Agency director, urge the formation of a National Counterintelligence Service, separate and apart from both the FBI and CIA. A common starting point of all such proposals is that the FBI is just not up to the job of collecting domestic intelligence and countering foreign espionage.
Whatever the case, America’s potential adversaries have, once again, been presented with an awe-inspiring example of our military prowess in Iraq. That prowess is based on a combination of technology and knowledge. However, this serves to raise the premium on the acquisition by foreign intelligence services of the secret technology and knowledge underlying that success. We need to have a CI system that ensures that it does not become the Achilles heel of America’s national security.