Operation Honey Badger: How did China kill or remove more than 20 CIA assets?

(TFC) – The Chinese counter-intelligence services cleaned house from 2010 to 2012. They eliminated, through various means, at least 20 Central Intelligence Agency spies operating within the country. The network of Chinese nationals took years to build, some have said decades. The Chinese were capable of destroying the network in two years. Only one was officially arrested, the rest simply disappeared from agency contact.

The US government disagrees on how the network was discovered. Operation Honey Badger was reportedly the name of a joint FBI-CIA investigation into intelligence fiasco. The investigation turned up nothing. Some point the finger at a Chinese hack, some suggest a former CIA operative sold out, others suggest it was faulty tradecraft.

While a Cold War-style mole hunt or a high tech hack are more glamorous, the most likely culprit is faulty tradecraft. The process of recruiting spies is more tedious than exciting. It starts by identifying a foreign national that can be exploited or coerced into spying. The ideologically motivated days of spying for a belief in democracy are over. Today, the motivations aren’t quite as lofty. It’s mostly blackmail. Once the future asset has been identified and approached, the training begins.

More often than not, the spy is a bureaucrat or functionary of some kind. He or she doesn’t have field training and has no idea how to conduct counter-surveillance or transmit information without being discovered. These are skills the CIA handler is supposed to teach the asset. Today, tradecraft is dying art. The reliance on high-tech gadgets has led handlers to become lax. Frequent readers of The Fifth Column’s Tradecraft section, probably have a better understanding of how to deal with interrogation and surveillance than most spies currently in the field.


Image Source: Global Panorama, Flickr, Creative Commons

Arrogance within the halls of Langely has led to yet another intelligence gathering fiasco and another pile of bodies. One of the discovered spies was reportedly executed in the courtyard of the building in which he worked as a warning to others. Human intelligence is still the most vital form of intelligence. Hacks and signal intercepts might be able to demonstrate what a country or organization is doing, but it doesn’t demonstrate why they are doing it. Intent. That is the Holy Grail of intelligence gathering. Satellites can clearly show columns of tanks moving towards a border, but it’s the conversations held behind closed doors that can identify whether the movements are part of a drill or a prelude to an invasion.

Given the constant stream of mistakes coming from the US intelligence community, it is unlikely the agency learned anything from the deaths of its network and assets.