Return to

Sept. 26, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

Former CIA counterspy on China intel 'storm'
China is engaged in an unprecedented intelligence-gathering attack aimed at stealing all types of American secrets, according to a former high-ranking CIA counterintelligence official.

“The Chinese intelligence storm impacting the U.S. is a secret assault on America that is without parallel since that mounted by Moscow in the 1930s and ‘40s,” said Mark Kelton, who retired in 2015 as deputy director for counterintelligence in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.

Mr. Kelton said in an interview for the book “Deceiving the Sky” that just like at the zenith of Soviet espionage, China’s spying operations have received little public attention — until a recent wave of arrests and prosecutions.

Despite the lack of attention, China is increasing its targeting of U.S. secrets and has shifted tactics from a focus on recruiting ethnic Chinese Americans as spies to targeting a larger spectrum of Americans.

After years of few Chinese espionage-related arrests, American counterintelligence agencies have exposed an unprecedented number of Beijing spies. They include former CIA officers Kevin Mallory, convicted of espionage, and Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who pleaded guilty to spy charges, and former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Ron Hanson, who this week was sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying.

Others spies include State Department official Candace Claiborne, who was convicted of passing information to Chinese intelligence in exchange for cash and gifts; FBI employee Kun Shan “Joey” Chun, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to providing China with restricted and sensitive information; and Glenn Duffie Shriver, recruited while studying in Shanghai and arrested in 2010 while applying for CIA employment at the behest of the Chinese Ministry of State Security.

“As [counterintelligence] professionals know all too well, however, no matter how many spies are caught, others always remain at liberty,” Mr. Kelton said.

The Chinese are following the ancient strategist Sun Tzu’s dictum that knowledge of the enemy can be obtained only from people.

China, however, has added a caveat to that strategy. China is using “blended” intelligence attacks that combine traditional human spying with cyberespionage and other technical spying.

“The PRC has launched a covert assault on the U.S. across the full spectrum of intelligence activities,” Mr. Kelton said. “That campaign, which has inflicted considerable damage on us, to include theft of sensitive government, trade and industrial secrets, has featured seemingly myriad Chinese cyberattacks, principally by the People’s Liberation Army 3rd Department (3PLA), on U.S. government and private-sector organizations.”

Simultaneously, Beijing is using traditional intelligence collection by legal Chinese travelers and visitors to the United States and is recruiting Americans with access to government secrets.

“This Chinese intelligence threat is only now beginning to garner the attention it deserves,” he added.

In the past, U.S. government policies regarded the communist regime in Beijing as less threatening than the Soviet and later Russian spy assault.

“Consequently, the Chinese intelligence threat has, until recently, received less attention from U.S. counterintelligence organizations, entities that are, without exception, never resource-rich,” Mr. Kelton said.

The damage extends beyond economic losses.

“As indicated in the charging documents of some of those Americans arrested for betraying our country, their provision of classified information to Beijing has resulted in lives lost among those who worked with us in opposition to the evil, oppressive PRC regime,” Mr. Kelton said. “They were, and are, heroes in the fight for freedom.”

David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said this week that the Trump administration is stepping up pressure on China over its mass repression of ethnic Uighurs in western China.

Over 1 million Uighurs are interned in a concentration camps in Xinjiang province — called “occupied East Turkistan” by Uighurs — as part of alleged counterterrorism operations by China. Mr. Stilwell said intelligence on the issue, along with testimony from camp survivors, has revealed a dire situation for the Uighur majority there.

Among the options being considered are economic sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the repression and Chinese technology companies that are engaged in electronic surveillance of the Muslim Uighurs.

“There is action going on. This is the next step,” Mr. Stilwell told reporters at the United Nations headquarters in New York, adding that the diplomatic “water temperature has been rising to date.” Mr. Stilwell declined to telegraph what specific measures will be taken.

On China’s use of American surveillance technology, Mr. Stilwell said the Trump administration has notified U.S. companies to avoid selling products that can be used for repression.

“Nobody wants to be complicit in something like this,” he said.

Testimony from Uighur escapees showed that the Chinese are monitoring phone calls and financial transactions in what Mr. Stilwell called an intrusive security posture. He confirmed that recent video images of shackled and blindfolded Uighurs being loaded onto trains appears authentic.

“The U.S. government believes the video is authentic, and they located it somewhere near the city of Kashgar,” he said. “This activity is happening in that area still.”

China has denied its campaign against the Uighurs is repression and sought to compare the mass incarcerations to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr. Stilwell rejected the comparison.

“Here’s Xinjiang, and they’re trying to link that with Guantanamo,” he said. “I mean, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see the difference in scale, scope and everything related to the two facilities, the two activities.”

China is “running out of explanations as this evidence continues to grow,” he said.

Mr. Stilwell also warned about China’s military buildup during recent congressional testimony.

“Beijing’s military modernization continues at a breakneck pace,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Its exercises in the region are increasingly complex and clearly intended not only to deter U.S. efforts to sustain our forward presence in the region, but to signal to other countries, and to the authorities on Taiwan, that they are under direct threat. Beijing’s conduct is at odds with its public narrative of a ‘peaceful rise.’”

China’s past arms proliferation activities have included providing Pakistan with nuclear warhead designs, selling advanced cruise missiles to Iran and providing North Korea with mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers.

Recently, China has begun selling unmanned aerial vehicles — one of the cutting-edge weapons used by foreign militaries and even adopted by some terrorist groups for attacks.

China’s Alibaba, the world’s largest online retailer, is offering for sale China’s YZ-8 drone, ostensibly for agricultural use.

The cost? A YZ-8 can be procured for $250,000 and can be purchased using a Visa or Mastercard credit card or through Western Union.

Alibaba describes the YZ-8 as a fixed-wing “Spray Airdrop Surveillance Inspection Multi-Purpose UAV.”

The drone can fly for up to 30 hours and carry a payload of up to 110 pounds.

The YZ-8 appears to be a civilian version of China’s Harrier Hawk II Air Sniper, a military drone that is equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for radar imaging missions.

“You need go no further than the Alibaba webpage to see how easily China proliferates drone technology that could easily be converted into a medium-range cruise missile,” said Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert.

Mr. Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the YZ-8 “can be easily converted into a slow cruise missile with a range of 2,400 kilometers.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to