Vladimir Putin

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Washington and the World

Want to Stop Russia From Messing With Our Democracy? Rethink U.S. Counterintelligence.

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Michelle Van Cleave was head of U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush.

News that hackers backed by the Iranian government targeted a 2020 presidential campaign brings back vivid flashbacks of Russia’s infiltration into the 2016 election—and raises concerns about what could happen next year. Congress is still investigating Russia’s attempts to undermine U.S. democracy last election cycle, while dedicated intelligence and law enforcement officers, diplomatic, security and military personnel are doubling down on their efforts to keep it from happening again.

But looking back will not be enough to keep it from happening again—whether at the hands of Russia, Iran or any other foreign adversary. In all the reports and hearings over the past 2½ years, no one has identified the real problem: U.S. counterintelligence is not set up to preempt foreign intelligence operations directed against the United States. If the government doesn’t empower U.S. counterintelligence to go on offense, we are destined to remain on our back feet.

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It’s not only our elections that are under assault. Russian intelligence services have been on a global offensive under President Vladimir Putin. They are poisoning people in England, working to undermine the hard-won beginnings of democracy in Eastern Europe and propping up brutal dictators like Bashar Assad in Syria. They’re running aggressive operations to recruit and plant spies, steal America’s most closely guarded secrets, and hack into our computer systems to take what they want and disrupt our society at will.

Moscow is far from alone, as evidenced by China’s increasing efforts to recruit U.S. officials, ongoing cyberattacks, influence operations and defense technology theft. According to press reports, at least 20 CIA sources were executed by the Chinese government between 2010 and 2012—a sweeping roundup of men and women in China who had risked their lives providing information about Chinese plans and capabilities directed against the United States and our allies. It was a devastating blow to U.S. intelligence and to the policymakers and operators who depend on that intelligence to make critical decisions.

Similarly, targeting of U.S. business and industry—especially by the Chinese—to steal proprietary information and acquire key assets is a purposeful, strategically orchestrated undertaking, in which foreign intelligence services play integral roles. There are trillions of dollars at stake, yet the principal U.S. response has been to chase export control violations and industrial security incident reports while we continue to lose ground.

It’s time U.S. counterintelligence went on the offense. Hostile intelligence operations are not uncontrollable forces of nature. Some can be deterred, and all have vulnerabilities that can be exploited given sufficient time, resources and creativity.

But here is the problem. Apart from the CIA’s approach to the KGB during the Cold War, American counterintelligence has never had a standing strategic mission of finding and disabling hostile intelligence services before they target the United States. As a result, U.S. counterintelligence is not wired to preempt.

Unlike most other governments, the United States has never had a unified organization or a national counterintelligence “service” to carry out CI operations. Instead, the U.S. has a siloed system, with each branch organized, trained and equipped to accomplish agency-specific objectives. In simple terms, the FBI’s job is to find the spies in the U.S. and arrest them, the CIA’s job is to make sure our spies abroad succeed, and the military’s job is to protect U.S. troops against enemy intelligence operations.

These are all vital CI missions, but all the incentives are to work one case at a time—Did we catch the spy? Did we find the hidden microphone or the embedded microchip? Did we expose the front company?— instead of going after the foreign service as a whole to disrupt its operations. There is no centralized planning to assess hostile intelligence services and their vulnerabilities—How and where do they operate? How are they resourced, trained, tasked? Who are their leaders, their American targets officers, their liaison relationships?—in order to devise a coherent strategy to stop them.

This is a big problem. The rich diversity of complementary skills and capabilities across the CI enterprise should be an inherent strength of the United States, but without a national program to provide strategic direction or integration, America’s counterintelligence will never be as effective as it could be. And since no one government organization has a common operating picture of foreign intelligence threats or the resources available to counter them, there are inherent holes in the CI architecture that adversaries can and do exploit.

These structural flaws have been understood at least since 2002, which was the last time Congress took a hard look at U.S. counterintelligence. The country had just weathered betrayals by traitors like CIA officer Aldrich Ames, FBI special agent Robert Hanssen and DIA analyst Ana Montes, as well as the staggering theft of all U.S. nuclear design secrets by the Chinese. Something had to change. Congress decided it was time to put someone in charge.

When President George W. Bush appointed me his national counterintelligence executive in 2003, I became the first statutory head of U.S. counterintelligence. I was charged with integrating and providing strategic direction to CI activities government-wide. As a first order of business, my new office conducted a top-to-bottom review and concluded that the disjointed CI model was working about as well as it could. Clearly, we needed a new way of doing business.

The first national counterintelligence strategy, signed by Bush in 2005, directed that the national counterintelligence enterprise be reconfigured to be able to work together to go on offense. A national team would do the centralized strategic planning; the execution would be distributed to the FBI, CIA and the Defense Department. The goal was to exploit where we can, and interdict where we must, degrading adversary intelligence services and their ability to operate against us.

But just as our work was getting underway, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established, along with a new bureaucracy that had other priorities. The realignment of U.S. counterintelligence was put on hold indefinitely as the Bush and Obama administrations concentrated effort and resources on the war on terror. The prototype CI program we had designed was stripped of funding and never renewed. In 2014, my old position (which had been moved under the DNI) was renamed director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. Most of the director’s time has been consumed by raising awareness of security concerns and the grievous harm caused by insiders like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. At best, we’re back to where we started in 2002.

America is paying the price. It’s not only the high cost in lives lost, which have been tragic, or treasure taken. It’s the uncertainty interjected across the U.S. defense infrastructure, American diplomatic initiatives, intelligence efforts, global competitiveness and now even our democratic institutions—today and for decades to come.

The next move is up to Congress. As they consider how to respond to foreign interference in U.S. elections, the oversight committees should take a serious look at the stalled modernization of America’s counterintelligence enterprise and the performance of the national CI office. I think they will find that the United States needs a national-level strategic counterintelligence program to shake free creative thinking and desperately needed new energy to get inside hostile intelligence services, find their vulnerabilities and disrupt their operations.

When all of dust settles, the hearings conclude and the investigations are behind us, the Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other adversary services will still be hard at work, looking for the next opening to corrupt the workings of our democracy, weaken our allies, steal our secrets and hold America’s security at risk.

No one wants the next question to be: Why didn’t Congress do more to stop them?

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