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Report: CIA lost dozens of informants globally in recent years

  • Published at 03:41 pm October 6th, 2021
CIA logo on the floor of the agency headquarters at Langley, Virginia Collected

Adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan hunt down the CIA’s sources

In a shocking revelation, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it lost dozens of informants worldwide over the past few years, according to The New York Times.

The US intelligence agency last week sent a classified message to a global network of stations and bases saying informants recruited from other countries to spy for the US had been arrested, killed or compromised, The Times reported on Tuesday, citing the people concerned.

Obtaining a highly confidential cable containing the disclosure as the newspaper reported: "The cable highlights the struggles spy agencies go through as they work to recruit spies around the world in a difficult operating environment."

Although brief, the cable laid out the specific number of agents executed by rival intelligence agencies — a closely held detail that counterintelligence officials typically do not share in such cables.

The cable highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments.

In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the CIA’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft, being too trusting of sources, underestimating foreign intelligence agencies and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of CIA officers in order to discover their sources.

While the CIA has many ways to collect intelligence for its analysts to craft into briefings for policymakers, networks of trusted human informants around the world remain the centerpiece of its efforts, the kind of intelligence that the agency is supposed to be the best in the world at collecting and analysing.

Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the CIA’s case officers — its front-line spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.

The agency devoted much of its attention for the last two decades to terrorist threats and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but improving intelligence collection on adversarial powers both great and small is once again a centerpiece of the CIA’s agenda, particularly as policymakers demand more insight into China and Russia.

The loss of informants, former officials said, is not a new problem. But the cable demonstrated the issue is more urgent than is publicly understood.

The warning was primarily aimed at front-line agency officers, the people involved most directly in the recruiting and vetting of sources. The cable reminded CIA case officers to focus not just on recruiting sources but also on security issues including vetting informants and evading adversarial intelligence services.

Among the reasons for the cable was to prod CIA case officers to think about steps they can take on their own do a better job managing informants.

Former officials said that there has to be more focus on security and counterintelligence, among both senior leaders and front-line personnel, especially when it comes to recruiting informants, which CIA officers call agents.

Worldwide messages to CIA stations and bases that note troubling trends or problems, or even warnings about counterintelligence problems, are not unheard-of, according to former officials. 

Still, the memo outlining a specific number of informants arrested or killed by adversarial powers is an unusual level of detail, one that signals the importance of the current problems. Former officials said that counterintelligence officials typically like to keep such details secret even from the broad CIA workforce.

Asked about the memo, a CIA spokesperson declined to comment.