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Oct. 7, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Facebook short-staffed for countering foreign spies

By Bill Gertz
Former Facebook executive Frances Haugen testified this week that the social media giant is struggling to counter foreign intelligence service operations on the platform, including Chinese activities targeting minority Uyghurs in western China.

Ms. Haugen told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that China is especially active on Facebook and that she regards the platform’s weak protocols as a threat to U.S. security.

“I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today,” said the former member of Facebook’s counterespionage team, who has become a whistleblower.

Under questioning from Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, Ms. Haugen said she tracked Chinese government activities on Facebook that involved “surveilling … weaker populations in places around the world,” a reference to efforts by Chinese intelligence and security agents to monitor and silence the Muslim minority Uyghurs, a group that the U.S. government and rights organizations say is facing mass repression and genocide in China.

Iranian intelligence agents also are using Facebook for espionage, she said.

“So, this is definitely a thing that is happening and I believe Facebook‘s consistent understaffing of the counterespionage, information operations, and counterterrorism teams is a national security issue,” Ms. Haugen said. The former product manager said she has been in touch with others in Congress involved in counterintelligence issues on the problem.

Ms. Haugen said Facebook executives are “very aware” that foreign intelligence services are exploiting the social media giant’s site that boasts nearly 3 billion users.

“And I believe the fact that Congress doesn’t get a report of exactly how many people are working on these things internally is unacceptable because you have a right to keep the American people safe,” she told the Senate Commerce subcommittee overseeing consumer protection, product safety and data security.

Ms. Haugen urged Congress to force Facebook to “make changes” in how it operates.

“During my time at Facebook, first working as the lead product manager for civic misinformation, and later on counterespionage, I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolves these conflicts in favor of its own profits,” she said.

A Facebook official involved in national security issues defended the company’s efforts to stop espionage services from exploiting its site.

Nathaniel Gleicher said Facebook investigators monitor and routinely take down government and nongovernment targeting of people across the internet, including on Facebook.

“One reason the public knows about the scope of efforts like this from China, Iran and others is because we’ve taken them down and reported on them publicly,” Mr. Gleicher stated in a nine-part post on Twitter.

One Chinese intelligence operation involved cyberespionage against Uyghurs mainly living abroad in Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, Syria, Australia, Canada and other states, he said.

CIA issues warning on agent losses
The CIA suffered one of its worst counterintelligence failures beginning in 2010 when a combination of a double agent and communications compromises resulted in the loss of all recruited agents in China, according to U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the losses.

Officials said that more than two dozen Chinese informants recruited by the agency were compromised, imprisoned or executed, with at least one agent shot in a courtyard of the Ministry of State Security in Beijing.

Much of the losses were attributed to Jerry Chung Shim Lee, a former CIA operations officer who had access to the identities of CIA informants in China and who went to work for Chinese intelligence in 2007. Lee pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage for China in 2019.

CIA agent networks were also believed to have been compromised by a security breach in the electronic system used to communicate clandestinely with agents.

The agency has remained silent on the losses, declining to comment on what is regarded as one of the worst disasters for an agency that was plagued in the past by repeated agent losses due to poor counterintelligence and security. During the Cold War, CIA and FBI traitors gave Moscow the names of all recruited agents in the Soviet Union and Russia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Large numbers of recruited CIA agents in Cuba and Eastern Europe also were exposed owing to weak security.

The New York Times this week confirmed the agent losses in reporting on a secret cable sent to CIA stations. The cable last week warned all CIA stations about the troubling number of recruited agents being compromised, the newspaper said, quoting people familiar with the cable.

CIA counterspies at the Counterintelligence Mission Center over the last several years studied dozens of cases of foreigners working for the agency who were killed, arrested, imprisoned or otherwise compromised.

The cable also included a specific number of agents that were executed by foreign intelligence services, a number not usually included in widely disseminated classified cables. The number was not disclosed.

According to the report, the CIA is struggling to recruit spies around the world and noted that adversary spy services in China, Russia and Pakistan have been hunting down CIA sources and in some cases turning them into double agents working against the agency.

Agency leaders in the cable blamed poor tradecraft, such as failing to vet recruited agents and underestimating the power of foreign counterintelligence agencies in ferreting out spies. The cable also blamed CIA officers for rushing to recruit foreign informants without gauging counterintelligence risks, described as a problem of “mission over security.”

CIA counterintelligence chief Sheetal T. Patel, head of the mission center, was behind the warning to the stations, the Times said.

Former CIA Deputy Director for Counterintelligence Mark Kelton declined to comment on the Chinese agent losses, but described Beijing’s spy operations against the United States as “an intelligence storm” not seen since a spying assault by Soviet intelligence in the 1940s.

“As was the case during that so-called Golden Age of Soviet espionage, Beijing’s ongoing intelligence campaign has garnered no more than episodic public attention, and then only when a spy is arrested or a high-profile cyberattack is detected,” he said.

Biden urged to ban travel for Chinese nationals
Four Republican House members are urging President Biden to take punitive action against China’s communist government for its stepped-up military provocations against unofficial U.S. ally Taiwan.

The four congressmen said China since January dispatched more than 600 military aircraft into areas near Taiwan, including more than 58 warplanes that were sent into the air defense zone south of the island in the past week in the largest air incursion of its kind so far.

The flights are “deliberately destabilizing the situation in the Taiwan Strait,” the House members said in a letter to the president.

“This is a reckless provocation on the part of Beijing — one that is clearly designed to trigger a defensive military response from Taipei as a pretense for a Chinese attack,” the lawmakers stated in an Oct. 5 letter.

The letter was signed by GOP Reps. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee and W. Gregory Steube of Florida.

China’s leaders, military forces and state media have been ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in a test of Mr. Biden’s resolve, they stated.

The failure of the president to take action in response is emboldening Chinese authorities, his critics say. The only public response so far by the Biden administration was a State Department statement over the weekend expressing concern about the military provocations. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was also dispatched to Switzerland for hastily arranged talks with his Chinese counterpart in an effort to clear the air, the White House said Tuesday.

“It will take more than strongly worded tweets to deter China‘s escalation of tensions in the region,” the lawmakers said.

The Biden administration should rethink relations with Taiwan by formally resuming diplomatic relations with the government in Taiwan and encourage allies to do the same.

Chinese nationals who frequently travel to the United States also should be blocked from entry into the country, the letter recommended.

“Given that many Chinese officials and oligarchs routinely travel to the United States and send their children to prestigious U.S. colleges and universities, closing off this privilege would apply surgical pressure on China‘s elites in response to the destabilizing actions of their rulers in the Taiwan Strait,” the congressmen said.

The administration should also increase financial pressure on Beijing through greater import restrictions and economic sanctions.

Asked about the Chinese military provocations, Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House he had spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about Taiwan. “We agree we’ll abide by the Taiwan agreement. That’s who we are. And we made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement.”

U.S.-China relations were built on communiques that did not clearly settle the status of Taiwan. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits the United States to provide defensive arms to Taiwan even while officially recognizing the Beijing regime as China‘s government.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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