The Spy We Can’t Ignore

A year and a half ago we moved into an apartment with a terrace that was 25 floors above ground level. The first summer of our residence, I would venture out onto the terrace, hugging the terrace door, with a slight shaking in my legs; I would ultimately sink into my chair overlooking an incredible view. I have since overcome my hyperventilating and noticed that there were birds that flew high in the sky. They flew alone and seemed to glide endlessly with no movement of their wings. I have since learned that they are a species of hawks and wondered what they were searching for in a high-rise city. Having an obsession with drones, as I watched the hawks, I would look for what looked like drones—the ones you might buy on Amazon. I didn’t know I was looking for the wrong thing.

As reported in the South China Morning Post, China has been using high-tech drones that look like and behave like birds as a method to spy on their own citizens. What is equally amazing (to me) is that there are more than 30 governments and military groups around the world that employ what look like birds as spying drones. It was reported in the South China Morning Post that these bird-like drones are so convincing that real birds often fly beside them. These spies in the sky are GPS equipped and have the ability to transfer their findings to their base in real time. Their movements apper so real that they are hard to spot and identify from the ground. Some hours after reading the China press report, I remembered a spy series on television that had used robot birds to spy on an ISIS bombing attempt. Fantasy colliding with reality.

In the early 1930s Secretary of State Henry L Stimson wrote in his memoirs “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”. How life has changed. While the Chinese birds might remain in China, the Chinese government is actively spying on the United States and the rest of the world. There is nothing new in that report, as we spy on everyone else — both our allies and enemies. On a closer examination we have learned of the enormous extent of China’s aggressive spying, along with their hostile military forays into the South China Sea. These security issues have become more than merely worrisome. The complexity of Trump’s trade war with China is the tip of the iceberg; it is not a “sleeping giant”, and we should be more concerned and more proactive in denying them the space for their adventure. A small example is the U.S. Interior Department grounding its entire fleet of aerial drones, one of the largest in the federal government, citing increasing concerns about the national security risk from Chinese manufacturers.

According to the WSJ, the Interior Department has more than 800 drones, all of which are either made in China or have Chinese parts. Officials are quoted that the I.D. worries that U.S. reliance on Chinese drones might be putting critical U.S. infrastructure at risk. The concern, voiced by some, is that these drones may be (in all probability) sending information back to the Chinese government or hackers elsewhere to use in cyberattacks against the United States and its interests.

The heart of the matter is the extent to which China is aggressively combating the United States. We all (I am assuming) know the name Huawei (as I did) but have no true understanding of why and when the name of this massive international corporation raises a collective groan. From its name one can calculate that it is a Chinese multinational technology company that manufactures and provides telecommunication equipment, smartphones and consumer electronics, with its headquarters deep into China. It employs close to 200 hundred thousand persons with a little less than one half engaged in research and development (R &D), stationed around the world with an annual investment of close to 14 billion dollars in R& D alone. So why the present concern? It started with their dramatic overtake of the telecom operators, telecommunications-equipment manufacturers, overtook Apple and its smart phones, Samsung Electronics, and ranks somewhere in the low 70 of the Fortune Global 500 list. This international sweep all within the grasp and influence of the omniscient hand of the Chinese government. Cleary, the company is a state backed corporation, and maybe as some have claimed, a high-tech Trojan horse. Along with the development of 5G wireless networks, which China vigorously promotes, the United States government has raised the storm warning flags of potential cybersecurity attacks of immense proportions. Contention flowed back and forth, and in December ’19, it was announced that the Company’s center was moving from the United States to Canada, but not before it moved in the U.S. Federal courts in its continuing legal and PR battle against the U.S. government. A legal challenge to a Federal Communications Commission order was filed labelling the Chinese telecom as a “national security” risk and blocking rural phone and Internet providers from buying its gear.

Almost unseen in the background of this turbulence, a CIA former case officer, whose last name indicated Asian ancestry and who had served in multiple agency offices overseas, including China, was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison for conspiring to provide American intelligence secrets to the Chinese government. Some current and former officials say his spying caused a devastating blow to U.S. intelligence operations. It is alleged that he had knowledge of some of the most sensitive secrets, including the names of undercover sources in China. His work with Chinese intelligence coincided with the demolition of the C.I.A.’s network of informants in China. And he isn’t the only Chinese citizen arrested with some secretly deported for spying. On the last day of the year, a front page article in the WSJ detailed “one of the largest-ever corporate espionage efforts, cyberattackers alleged to be the work of the Chinese intelligence service…and its actions have not ceased.”

Over the last few years what we have written and learned from a number of journals and reporting — one article in particular by Bonnie Bley—is the enormous stature China has achieved across the board in the international diplomatic arena . My impression of China changed drastically after I saw photographs taken by my grandson (#2) during his extended stay in that country. We may think rickshaws and endless rice paddies and shiny boot lines of a military parade thru Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but many of the photographs (he took) were of large, very impressive modern steel and glass cities.

As we closed out 2019, China has surpassed the United States in an underappreciated but essential measure of global influence: the size of its diplomatic forces and network. Additionally, one of the most visible signs of its relationship with the United States ( aside from the tariff war which will not end with the newest protocol) is the collapse of Chinese direct financial investment in the United States, as Chinese firms once eager to expand into foreign markets now avoid the political risk. President Trump’s trade war only exacerbated the divide. For decades, Washington had the largest diplomatic network in the world. Now China prevails boasting 276 diplomatic posts—including embassies, consulates, and permanent missions to international organizations. The United States’ network, meanwhile, stands at 273, down one post since 2017.

In global diplomatic primacy, the playing field is now leveling. For a number of reasons, I believe it is tilting in China’s direction. The 2019 index puts China in first place ahead of 60 other major diplomatic networks.

Add to this, the Trump administration’s desire to cut the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets by up to 23 percent. It came as no surprise that U.S. diplomacy looks increasingly clueless to other foreign governments. There is another important item in this revelation. Diplomatic postings and facilities also operate as facilities for spying while appearing more mundane. If there is a diplomatic post of any description you can be assured that one member of the delegation is a spy.

Most every week I read in the back pages of our national newspaper that another Chinese civilian or official is wandering into or on military restrictive areas taking pictures. Chinese Embassy officials trespassed onto a Virginia base that is home to Special Operations forces. Our government secretly expelled two Chinese Embassy officials this past fall after they drove onto a sensitive military base in Virginia. At least one of the Chinese officials was an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover. Their expulsions only add to tensions between Washington and Beijing. As the year closed, a Chinese national penetrated a Florida military naval air station in Key West. It has been reported more than once that American intelligence officials say China poses a greater espionage threat to our national security than any other country. In recent months, Chinese officials with diplomatic passports have become bolder about showing up unannounced at research or government facilities.

On top of the Huawei situation, the United States Army has banned soldiers from using the Chinese-owned video app TikTok, calling it a security concern. “A Cyber Awareness Message sent out on 16 December identifies TikTok as having potential security risks associated with its use,” The move comes after the Navy barred the use of the app earlier, telling its sailors that anyone who hadn’t removed the app from their government-issued phone would be banned from the Navy intranet. Many in the C.I.A. feared China had a mole in one or more federal agencies.

To make matters more intense, a meeting seeking to increase South Korea’s financial contribution for our military defense of that nation broke down. Seoul rejected Trump’s demands for a fivefold increase in South Korea’s payment to the U.S. for the cost of stationing American troops there. Trump is seeking to earn a “financial return” from the presence of American forces. While Trump’s negotiating team walked out of the meeting with our closest military ally in that region, the South Koreans turned around and signed a “defense” understanding with China—boosting “cooperation” between the parties. The curtain rising during the first week of 2020 finds the United States juggling two military crises — one with North Korea, and on the other side of the globe –Iran. We cannot afford war or hostilities with either of those two countries. I had written the last sentence of this blog before word of the assassination of the head of the Iranian Revolutionary elite squad or Quds Forces on the direct orders of the President of the United States. The fall-out from that has yet to arrive at our doorstep, as it most surely will. The Iraqi Parliament has voted to oust us out of that Country at the same moment that Iran announced it will suspend all commitments to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Because of the President’s unsettling relationship with the dictator of the former Soviet Union, we have all but ignored a major facet of our national security focus. Yes, the Russians meddled and are attempting to meddle in our elections for the benefit of the President, and yes, Putin needs to speak with a megaphone for the world to hear the Russian bear roar, but it is the silent giant China who should be keeping us awake at night. China’s economic and militarily aggressiveness fuels its expansion far beyond its immediate and immense geographic and population resources. Diplomatically, economically and military through the use of direct pressure and the evolving and aggressive development of its sophisticated spying technique, its tentacles are fast eclipsing the reach and power of the United States.

Richard Allan,
The Editor

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