Pacific Dialogue
I spy with my little eye…
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-08-07  ·   Source: NO.32 AUGUST 10, 2023

The classic Hollywood action slash spy movie seems to have dulled in recent years. Judging by the myriad of "disappointing" reviews, even the latest installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, seems unable to save the genre from its decline. Perhaps filmmakers could look to U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns' fireside chat moderated by American network National Public Radio's flagship news program All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly at the Aspen Security Forum 2023 for some inspiration. According to Burns, the U.S. has made progress in rebuilding its intelligence network in China to ensure it has "strong human intelligence capability to complement what we can acquire through other methods."

Burns' commentary basically confirmed rumors of the U.S. intelligence network in China taking a huge hit to be true. In 2017, The New York Times published a front-page piece quoting anonymous (then) active and former CIA officials as saying that in 2010-12, at least 30 key U.S. intelligence personnel stationed in China had been arrested. Foreign Policy magazine followed up and revealed that the CIA suspected internal traitors and even launched an investigation into all employees of the U.S. Embassy and consulates in China.

As for Burns' remarks, it's obviously unusual to publicly discuss foreign intelligence undertakings, especially when they involve espionage.

For Burns, the most likely purpose of publicly discussing the rebuilding of the American intelligence network in China would have been to confuse the Chinese public and perhaps even make ordinary citizens suspicious of one another.

On the other hand, as The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise written by the brilliant military strategist Sun Tzu around the fifth century B.C., reads, "All warfare is based on deception." Burns' bravado might very well have been an attempt to divert China's attention away from other areas, such as its defense against U.S. cyberattacks.

On July 25, the Wuhan Earthquake Monitoring Center in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, reported its system had been intruded by a Trojan horse, aka any malware that misleads users of its true intent by disguising itself as a standard program.

China's National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center and Chinese Internet security company 360 conducted a traceability analysis, believing that the source of the attack was located in the U.S.

It is widely speculated that the reason for targeting the earthquake monitoring center could be to obtain data of seismic waves from which one can deduce the underground structure of a certain area, then find out whether it holds a large underground cavity, and eventually assess whether this is a military base or command post.

In recent years, the U.S. has repeatedly tried to hack into China's network security defenses.

"The U.S. on the one hand keeps spreading disinformation about so-called 'Chinese espionage and cyberattacks,' and on the other hand tells the public about its large-scale intelligence activities targeting China. This in itself is quite revealing," Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a news briefing on July 24.

The Art of War features one chapter wholly devoted to espionage operations. In it, Sun Tzu commented: "Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive knowledge, cannot be properly managed without goodwill and candor, and without a cunning mind, one can never make certain of the truth of their reports."​ This sentence still rings true today.

On July 1, an amendment to the country's Counter-Espionage Law came into effect, expanding the definition of espionage from covering state secrets and intelligence to any documents, data, materials or items related to national security interests.

Admittedly, espionage is part of major power competition. But how to keep one's scouts in line has posed a challenge to policymakers from B.C. to A.D. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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