There was a funny article in today’s Washington Post Outlook section – not “ha ha” funny but funny in the sense that life serves up some coincidences that the adjective “embarrassing” doesn’t come close to covering.
The piece in question came from Stephen A. Hall, described as a 30-year veteran of the CIA’s Russia (and presumably Soviet) operations, and it went after President Trump for sharing intelligence information irresponsibly with Russia and thereby going far toward convincing valuable U.S. allies that his administration can’t be trusted with crucial strategic secrets.
Let’s leave aside the indisputable reality that the Soviet operations “run and managed” by Mr. Hall were completely blindsided by the fall of the Soviet Union – arguably the most important geopolitical development of the final half of the twentieth century. Let’s also leave aside that its Soviet operations were the scene of some of America’s most damaging intelligence failures when Hall was around. (Although I’m sure he wasn’t solely or even largely to blame.)
Let’s focus instead on an article that ran the very same day in The New York Times. It reported that “The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A.spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.”
The reason? An “intelligence breach” that according to The Times was “one of the worst in decades.” Indeed, the article continues, “The number of American assets lost in China, officials said, rivaled those lost in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., who divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.”
And when did Beijing manage in effect to destroy the American spy network in China? Reported The Times, “From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, according to former American officials….” Further, the article adds, this “previously unreported episode shows how successful the Chinese were in disrupting American spying efforts and stealing secrets years before a well-publicized breach in 2015 gave Beijing access to thousands of government personnel records, including intelligence contractors.”
Anyone remember who was in charge of the U.S. government and its intelligence community during those years? Aside from Barack Obama, there was also one James R. Clapper, Jr., who was named Director of National Intelligence in August, 2010, and who of course has emerged as one of President Trump’s chief critics. For good measure, Clapper was promoted to that position from the top intelligence job in the Pentagon.
More important: During his tenure as head of the nation’s espionage establishment – and during Mr. Obama’s in the Oval Office – evidently zero progress was made in identifying the moles and plugging the breach. To add possible insult to injury, Clapper also could well be one of the apparent scores of former intelligence officials who have been leaking oceans of highly classified information intended to damage the Trump administration.
Like most reporting about intelligence matters, The Times account of the CIA’s China disaster may be completely or largely or partly wrong. As a result, it will be interesting to see if there’s any pushback over the next few days. But if and until there is, Americans will be entitled to ask whether anything that the president has shared with the Russians has or is likely to damage the nation’s security or its relations with other intelligence services as the disasters associated with many of his leading attackers.