Counter-intelligence needs a rethink. Catching spies is not enough

‘Western counter-intelligence has been largely defensive. Given the existential threats we increasingly face, we now need to go on the offensive’

The devil’s greatest trick, wrote Baudelaire, is persuading you that he doesn’t exist. Russian and Chinese propaganda would have us believe that they and other authoritarian regimes are forces for global stability and good governance. Yet over the past 20 years in Moscow’s case and over 40 in Beijing’s, national rulers have coerced and mobilised their societies for sweeping subversive campaigns against democracies. The aim: to corrupt, weaken and impoverish them; and, in China’s case, eventually to beat them economically, geopolitically and militarily.

Two factors have enabled this strategic, “whole-of-society” assault on our values, institutions and prosperity. First, authoritarian regimes with the political will to undermine us have turned our societies’ strengths—openness, diversity and rule of law—into vulnerabilities. Second, Russia, China (and others) have weaponised many aspects of daily life.

The tactics vary, but have proved startlingly effective. Using religious bodies in intelligence and influence operations. Siting air bases on artificial reefs built in disputed waters. Cyber-attacks on civilian infrastructure. Intimidating diaspora communities and censoring debate through cultural “front” organisations. Recruiting mercenaries through martial arts clubs. Tipping elections with “hack-and-leak” operations. Using nerve agents against defectors. Stealing cutting-edge intellectual property using “false flag” investments, naturalised employees and visiting students.

In 2018 alone, the US estimated its China-related industrial espionage losses at £457 billion—equivalent to about a sixth of the UK economy. The FBI has over 1,000 continuing investigations into this kind of theft, nearly all leading back to Beijing. With over 80 per cent of economic espionage charges filed since 2012 involving China, it is nowadays behind 90 per cent of all known espionage cases in the US.

Indeed, that country is haemorrhaging so many secrets that Congress last month introduced a bill mandating nationwide counter-intelligence (CI) awareness training for university faculty; closer monitoring of sensitive study areas; and increased vetting of academic/student visas. Meanwhile in Britain, which hosts around 107,000 Chinese students (compared to about 360,000 in the US), MI5 and GCHQ last month also warned universities that intellectual property and other valuable data are at serious risk of Chinese theft.

Talk of hybrid or new kinds of war still tends to overlook the same simple reality as post-1991 visions about the end of history: the Cold War may have technically ended, but the main authoritarian regimes born of it—(Soviet) Russia, North Korea, China, Cuba and Iran—have retained their revolutionary essence, in mindset only in some cases, in substance too in others.

Revolutionary regimes stand or fall on two fronts: holding power at home through repression and exporting their ideology through subversion. (If the latter flags, the former becomes more necessary.) To succeed, they need vast, ideologically driven security and intelligence services. Geopolitical struggles may now be framed as conservatism versus liberalism instead of capitalism versus communism, but the unchanged targets for these hostile services are our values, institutions and prosperity.

With their aggressive revolutionary mindset, traditions and roles, these security and intelligence services have for decades developed and perfected what today is called hybrid war, but in past decades would have been named revolutionary or partisan warfare. The essence is political-psychological, scoring (geo)political victories by manipulating behaviour, by any means, to defeat enemy societies without open conflict. This mindset, that the ends justify the means, should tell us that culture, religion, education and economics, for example, are just as, if not more, important battlegrounds to our adversaries than military ones.

To survive this assault on our democracies, we must urgently boost our “strategic immunity”: a whole-of-society defence, underpinned by a coherent and equally strategic approach to CI and security.

Counter-intelligence is much more than simply catching spies. It involves spotting, assessing and neutralising (including exploiting) any foreign intelligence threat. It aims in turn to deceive hostile services, and therefore governments, by influencing their perceptions.

After 1991—and especially from 9/11 to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine—the West neglected this. Our adversaries did not: they have long regarded their strategic approach to CI as vital in advancing their long-term interests. Western democracies now face three grave vulnerabilities.

First: our counter-intelligence has rarely been truly strategic, resourced and coordinated properly across society for maximum effectiveness. Second, our activities are siloed in individual agencies or departments, often focusing only on individual cases or operations rather than the whole picture. It is no longer enough, for instance, to sit within and work mainly on protecting the intelligence and security services, when our adversaries take a decades-long, strategic view. If the rest of government and society generally remain insecure and unaware, hostile services quickly find other ways of infiltrating and manipulating us.

The third vulnerability is that western counter-intelligence has been largely defensive. Given the existential threats we increasingly face, we now need to go on the offensive. Strategic CI will require a coordinated offensive effort to map, penetrate and disrupt hostile services, their strategies and operations as much as possible before they harm us.

As Michelle Van Cleave (the first and only presidentially-appointed US National Counterintelligence Executive, and a pioneering advocate of strategic CI) puts it: to seize back the initiative, we must “exploit where we can, and interdict where we must, degrading adversary intelligence services and their ability to operate against us”. Mustering the political will to understand and finally accept what we are facing is our great challenge. Our response must engage and educate citizens, to raise awareness of threats posed by seemingly harmless activities and actors. Otherwise, by the time we fully realise what is happening, it may be too late.

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