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China exposed CIA operatives in Africa and Europe with hacked US data, report says

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
December 22, 2020

In 2012, China hacked a major U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) database which allowed them to expose numerous CIA spies operating in Africa and Europe. The exposure was revealed in a new report series by Foreign Affairs, based on interviews with over three-dozen current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

While the OPM hack wasn’t publicly disclosed until 2015, Foreign Affairs reported that U.S. officials became aware of the earliest signs of China’s hacking efforts in 2012. By 2013, CIA personnel began noticing Chinese surveillance of their operatives almost as soon as they entered African and European countries, U.S. intelligence officials said. In some cases, the surveillance efforts were so overt that officials suspected China wanted the U.S. to know they had identified the U.S. operatives.

By 2015, the U.S. had identified the full exent of the OPM hack, which exposed the personal information of an estimated 21.5 million people, including U.S. officials, their spouses and government job applicants. The hack provided China with information including health, residency, employment, fingerprint, and financial data of those U.S. individuals.

According to Foreign Affairs, the Chinese data theft and subsequent surveillance of U.S. operatives abroad came as China also discovered a U.S. intelligence program in China, which aimed to recruit members of various Chinese government beauracracies, exploiting internal Chinese corruption and a culture of accepting bribes and kickbacks to oftentimes pay Chinese officials to gain advancement within government institutions.

China eventually caught on to the U.S. intelligence recruiting effort. The U.S. intelligence recruiting practice was also used in Iran and a similar network was first discovered by Iranian officials. U.S. operatives believe Iran then tipped off their Chinese counterparts to the U.S. espionage practices.

One former CIA official told Foreign Affairs that the CIA’s recruiting successes in China “showed the institutional rot of the party.”

In 2010, even before China discovered the U.S. spying efforts, CIA operatives noticed China had begun developing databases that tracked flights and passenger lists for espionage purposes and were using those databases for both their own offensive intelligence efforts and in counterintelligence efforts to hunt opposing spies.

One former CIA official told Foreign Affairs, that by 2012 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to adopt internal anti-corruption efforts to counter the U.S. spying operations. In late 2012, then-CCP party leader Xi Jinping, who would go on to become the president of China, implemented internal anti-corruption efforts that have reportedly lead to the prosecutions of hundreds of thousands of Chinese officials.

At around the same time China began to implement its travel tracking databases, U.S. officials also concluded Russian intelligence officials had managed to identify several U.S. intelligence operatives by finding discrepencies in pay between known U.S. State Department employees and intelligence operatives acting undercover.

Gail Helt, a former CIA China analyst said the internal reaction to the OPM hack was, “Oh my God, what is this going to mean for everybody who had ever traveled to China? But also what is it going to mean for people who we had formally recruited, people who might be suspected of talking to us, people who had family members there? And what will this mean for agency efforts to recruit people in the future? It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.”

By 2013, U.S. counterintelligence efforts began to see a pattern of concerning activity by Chinese and Russian intelligence operatives abroad. In some cases, the spouses of U.S. operatives were being approached by Chinese and Russian operatives. The personal information of the families of these intelligence operatives should have been difficult to discern, according to officials who spoke with Foreign Affairs, but in this case the families of U.S. operatives were being easily identified, as in the case of one U.S. official’s wife, who faced repeated efforts by Chinese operatives to harass and entrap her while she travelled in China on a school field trip with her children.

The Chinese discovery of U.S. intelligence recruiting efforts also resulted in reprisals against those recruited Chinese officials. Dozens of people belonging to the Chinese human source network were reportedly imprisoned or killed.

The damage to the U.S. intelligence network in China and the OPM hack significantly set back the U.S. intelligence understanding of China as well as its other intelligence efforts around the world.

As Xi came into office in 2013, then-President Barack Obama’s administration was unsure what kind of leader Xi would be. The disruption to U.S. intelligence efforts in China and renewed caution going forward reportedly compounded the difficulties U.S. intelligence officials had in assessing Xi and China going forward. In his 2018 book Perfect Weapon, David Sanger wrote the “CIA for many years, was not willing to do forward facing ops in China” because it was so disrupted and concerned by China exposing its agents abroad.