Last week, top U.S. counterintelligence officials warned Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stations and bases worldwide that a concerning number of informants were being captured or killed, according to people familiar with the situation.
Sent via top-secret cable that was viewed by DNYUZ, the message explained that the CIA’s counterintelligence mission center had reviewed dozens of cases over the last several years wherein foreign informants were killed, arrested or likely compromised.
In a rare move, the cable reportedly included the specific number of informants executed by adversary intelligence agencies.
The message emphasized the difficulties faced by the CIA as it attempts to recruit spies around the world. Recently, rival intelligence agencies from nations like Russia, China, and Iran have ramped up efforts to track down the CIA’s sources and, in a number of cases, convert them into double agents.
According to the cable, some of the key issues that have caused trouble when recruiting spies in recent years include poor tradecraft, trusting sources too much, underestimating foreign intelligence agencies and being too quick to recruit informants without taking into careful consideration the potential counterintelligence risks. The message described the problem as placing “mission over security.”
The number of compromised informants also signals that other nations are improving technological detection efforts, like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools.
Former officials said recruiting new informants is how the agency’s frontline spies earn promotions – running a successful counterintelligence operation is typically not enough.
The CIA is working to improve its intelligence collection from adversarial powers, especially as lawmakers call for additional insight into China and Russia. While informants being compromised or killed is not a new issue, the cable made it appear to be a more urgent concern than previously known.
People familiar with the cable said a key reason for the message is to push CIA officers to consider how to do a better job managing informants.
“No one at the end of the day is being held responsible when things go south with an agent,” said Douglas London, a former agency operative. “Sometimes there are things beyond our control but there are also occasions of sloppiness and neglect and people in senior positions are never held responsible.”
While he was unaware of the message, Mr. London asserts in his new book, entitled “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” that the agency’s move toward undercover activity and paramilitary operations weaken traditional intelligence that depends on secure recruitment and management of informants.