China’s Hack Just Wrecked American Espionage

It's tough enough to be an undercover spy in the age of the Internet. China's hack of American personnel files just made it much, much harder.

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.

Regardless, all espionage covers are based upon credible narratives that rely on plausible details. Through a process the Intelligence Community calls back-stopping, any officer’s cover needs to look real and check out if tested. Thus, an American spy who is posing as an oil executive, for instance, has to have a “legend” in that industry that bears that out. Think business cards, company websites, or a team of ersatz oil industry colleagues. Just as another intelligence officer who poses as a diplomat better have his or records in State Department systems, to look plausible.

Any cover is only as good as its back-stopping, which will be paper-thin if a foreign intelligence service can determine that American spies operating under covers, both official and non-official, are not who they claim to be. “Spot the spook” used to be a difficult and time-consuming activity for hostile intelligence services. The OPM hack promises to make it fast and easy. The hackers now have access to information on literally millions of people. That makes it much easier to verify who is really who, and which agency they’re really in the employ of.

For American spies abroad, this can be a matter of life or death, and any personnel sent into countries where they could be targeted for kill or capture—which in the age of the Islamic State is a depressingly long list—need to be deeply concerned about how much the OPM breach has complicated, and perhaps threatened, their lives.

How bad this is was explained by Joel Brenner, who from 2006 to 2009 served as the Intelligence Community’s top counterintelligence official. Describing the hack as “crown jewels material, a goldmine” for China, who Washington insiders believe is behind the theft, Brenner added: “This is not the end of American human intelligence, but it’s a significant blow.”

The only good news in all this is that several of our big spy services like CIA and NSA don’t rely on outside agencies for security clearances. They do their own background investigations, while ninety percent of the Federal government relies on OPM. But that’s cold comfort since the CIA uses other federal agencies as cover so often. Besides, given the enormous extent of this compromise, which gets worse with each new revelation, many are wondering how much information the Chinese don’t have at this point.

“I’m really glad to be out of the game,” explained a recently retired CIA senior operations officer. “There’s bad, there’s worse—and there’s this,” he said, referring to the OPM story. “CIA officers are not supposed to be anywhere in OPM files,” he rued, “but I’m glad I’m not posted overseas right now, hoping that’s true.”

A currently serving CIA official, also from the Directorate of Operations, echoed that, noting that the size and scope of the OPM debacle are so great that damage control for it “is going to keep many folks at Langley busy for years, and it’s not like they weren’t busy already.” He continued, “When you add this to Snowden, it’s really not a good time to be posted abroad anywhere less safe than maybe Canada or Australia.”

CIA has been down a similar road before. In the mid-1970’s, when their former officer Phil Agee went rogue and became an agent of Cuban and Soviet intelligence, he participated in the publication of classified information that exposed the true identities of hundreds of Agency officers serving abroad. Many careers were damaged, numerous Agency operations were blown, and one officer, the CIA’s station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, was murdered by terrorists, a crime the Agency blamed on Agee.

Agee insisted he had nothing to do with the Kremlin, which was a lie, as proven by KGB documents and the accounts of KGB officials who knew his case. In fact, Agee was a witting Soviet and Cuban agent whose disinformation did serious damage to American intelligence.

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The OPM breach on the heels of Snowden represents a one-two punch that has hurt American espionage far worse than Agee ever could. Compromises this great will take many years to repair, and for some officers whose covers get blown because of this, operations and careers may be seriously harmed. The unlucky ones, like Richard Welch in Athens, may be at risk of things much worse than a curtailed assignment.

Espionage covers were already under threat on many fronts. In the Internet age, such cover stories are easier than ever to check out – and perhaps expose as fraudulent. The OPM hack makes this already dicey situation much worse. Biometrics only further complicates matters. With computerized fingerprint checks at frontiers and biometric passports becoming commonplace, and a person’s true identity being established with database checks in just seconds, James Bond’s cover will be blown long before he gets to the baccarat table to order a martini. These two broad technological shifts could make traditional covers may soon be a thing of the past, a development that will significantly change how the spy business is conducted around the world.

Compounding those cover problems is the fact that China now has enough information to make life difficult for millions of Americans with access to secrets. One big question now is: Will Beijing share its “goldmine” with other countries? That’s one of the few ways the OPM nightmare could get even worse for Washington.

John R. Schindler is a security consultant and a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer. He is on Twitter at @20committee.