• Eyal Pinko

C.I.A. Admits: Dozens of Informants and agents were lost

In a top-secret cable to all stations and bases across the world, counterintelligence officials stated that too many of the persons it recruits from other countries to spy for the US are going missing.

According to persons familiar with the situation, top American counterintelligence officers notified every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about a worrying number of informants recruited from other countries to spy for the US being detained or assassinated.

The letter, contained in an extraordinary top-secret cable, stated that the C.I.A.'s counterintelligence mission center had investigated dozens of incidents involving foreign informants who had been assassinated, detained, or most certainly corrupted in the previous several years. Despite its briefness, the cable detailed the number of operatives executed by other intelligence services, a sensitive statistic that counterintelligence officers generally do not reveal in such cables.

The cable revealed the intelligence agency's difficulties in recruiting operatives around the world amid challenging operational environments. In recent years, adversary intelligence services in nations like Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan have started tracking down C.I.A. sources and turning them into double agents.

The cable acknowledged that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, but it also raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, such as poor tradecraft, overtrusting 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 dubbed "mission over security."

The increased use of biometric scans, face recognition, artificial intelligence, and hacking techniques to track the activities of C.I.A. officials in order to locate their sources has been proved by a large number of compromised informants in recent years.

While the C.I.A. has a variety of methods for gathering intelligence for its analysts to turn into briefings for policymakers, the agency's efforts are still centered on networks of trusted human informants around the world, the type of intelligence that the agency is supposed to be the best in the world at gathering and analyzing.

Former officials claim that the C.I.A.'s case officers — the agency's frontline spies — gain promotions by recruiting new sources. Case officers are rarely promoted for carrying out successful counterintelligence operations, such as determining whether an informant is working for another country.

For the past two decades, the C.I.A. has focused much of its attention on terrorist threats and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but improving intelligence collection on adversarial powers, large and small, is once again a top priority, especially as policymakers demand more information on China and Russia.

Former officials claimed that the loss of informants is not a new issue. However, the cable proved that the issue is more pressing than the general public realizes.

According to individuals who have read it, the warning was directed especially at front-line agency officers who are directly involved in source recruitment and vetting. The cable advised C.I.A. case officers to focus on security considerations such as vetting informants and avoiding adversarial intelligence services in addition to recruiting sources.

According to persons familiar with the cable, one of the goals was to encourage C.I.A. case officers to consider steps they might take on their own to improve informant management.

Former officials argued that senior executives and frontline employees should place a greater emphasis on security and counterintelligence, particularly when it comes to recruiting informants, which C.I.A. officers refer to as agents.

"At the end of the day, no one is held accountable when things go wrong with an agent," Douglas London, a former agency worker, said. "There are instances when things are beyond our control, but there are also moments when sloppiness and carelessness occur, and senior executives are never held accountable."

Mr. London stated that he had no knowledge of the cable. However, in his new book, "The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence," he claims that the C.I.A.'s turn toward covert action and paramilitary operations has undermined traditional espionage, which relies on carefully recruiting and handling operatives.

According to former officials, global transmissions to C.I.A. stations and bases that indicate alarming trends or problems, or even warnings of counterintelligence problems, are not unheard of. Nonetheless, the document detailing a particular number of informants detained or assassinated by opposing authorities is unusually detailed, indicating the gravity of the current issues. Former officials stated that even among the C.I.A.'s general staff, counterintelligence officials prefer to keep such details hidden.

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