The report card has been in for a while, and the news is not good. U.S. counterintelligence, our ability to protect U.S. national security secrets from our enemies and rivals, is in shambles. It doesn’t take a former CIA station chief like me to see the stark wreckage of failure surrounding the intel community like the aftermath of terrorist bomb. Any citizen reading the internet news can see that, and I can forgive them for wondering what Americans are actually getting for the billions we spend annually on the intelligence community (IC). Sure, there are numerous U.S. intel successes too, but our ability to protect our own information—from China hacking OPM to the Snowden debacle to Hillary Clinton’s Servergate and countless others in between—has never been worse. Today we are hemorrhaging highly classified information at an alarming rate, with no end in sight.
There are many reasons for this. The U.S. has always had traitors—those willing to sell out for a quick buck or some wacky ideological reason (world communism comes to mind). These miscreants have been seen in cases from the A-Bomb spies to the CIA’s Ames to the FBI’s Hanssen, but modern technology and a culture of post-9/11 information sharing (necessary, but much abused) has not only increased the number of potentially dubious eyes viewing classified material, but also how much they can steal.
Snowden’s theft of 1.5 million pages or Bradley Manning’s near-million classified documents pilfered on thumb drives are stark reminders of the dual-edged nature of technology. The intelligence community’s personnel screening efforts are inadequate for the task, and likely political correctness and bureaucratic lethargy has crept in—many don’t want to document the personnel and discipline problems that are often the herald of the disaffected traitor. Hanssen, Ames, Manning, and Snowden were personnel problems who “did not play well with others,” but the system tolerated them with tragic result.
So how to fix it? Our cyber vulnerability—the fact that multiple countries such as Russia, China, and Iran feel free to attempt penetration of our cyber defenses guarding classified information and attack our commercial tech/industrial databases on a daily basis without protest—must stop. Recent overtures of a U.S. offensive cyber capability are welcome, as long as these announcements result in concrete capabilities and not just bluster. I’ll leave that task to the techies; as an Operational Human Intelligence (HUMINT) type, I tend to concentrate on the human element in our intelligence fight.
Although modern technology can mean that many would-be traitors never have a personal meeting with Russian, Chinese, or other intel officers (the FBI’s Hanssen, throughout his entire 18-year espionage career, never met his Russian handler—one reason he survived so long), the fact remains that the United States is swarming with intelligence officers of many nations working with near impunity, meeting and communicating with potential sources of information—U.S. spies.
The FBI does the best it can as our counterintelligence first line of defense, but they are resource-constrained against this increasing horde of bad guys. At present, Chinese and Russian intelligence presence on our shores is the greatest it’s ever been—higher than in the Cold War. We are being robbed blind.
What some readers may find hard to believe is that many times the FBI knows who these hostile officers are. Sure, these operatives can make it harder for law enforcement—using aliases for passports and the like—but an intelligence officer’s behavior, provided they are surveilled, is different from that of conventional diplomats, and they can be broken out. I say this as someone who operated as an intelligence officer in the former Soviet Union for 12 years.
So why not kick them out under a blanket term dubbed persona non grata (PNG)? Well, often the FBI hopes to “turn” some of these intel officers for the purpose of working for us, or, if they’re uncooperative, document their meetings to identify which American might be spying for them. These are laudable goals, but the fact remains that only the smallest minority will be “turned.” These operations must be selectively continued. There is, however, another approach that can be done concurrently: mass expulsion.
Expulsion means that the U.S. government would simply publicize a list of known foreign intelligence officers (I have in mind Russia, China, and Iran, but I’m open to others) and give them 24 to 72 hours to leave the country. The IC certainly has the names readily available. PNG actions are often done quietly, in ones and twos internationally, and usually when a spy is caught red-handed. Less often it is conducted as a massed activity, but it has been done, not only by the United States, but in Great Britain and elsewhere during the Cold War.
Notably, in 1971 (“Operation Foot”), the revelations of a Soviet defector revealing extensive damage done by Soviet agents prompted Britain to kick some 20 Soviet intel officers out of the U.K. In October 1986, President Reagan, following the “Year of the Spy,” (1985) conducted another. Initially composed of 25 Soviets, the expulsion was then anted up to 55 additional “diplomats” following Moscow’s expulsion of five Americans.
Such actions, as noted above, draw retaliation. However, as in the case above, since the U.S. intel presence abroad is an order of magnitude smaller than the legions of Chinese and Russian intel types running amok in the West, the U.S. would gain FAR more than we would lose. Specifically what we would gain is a reduction in the flood of secrets outward. This would have the secondary effect of giving great pause to any Americans considering treason. As one intel officer is known to have said, “The goal should not be to catch the spy after he’s gotten into the country; we’ve got to stop him from entering in the first place.”
The strongest argument for such an action is that expulsion always has the same effect: a near paralysis of that opponent’s spy efforts. Subsequent Soviet defectors, for example, revealed that Soviet U.K. operations were plunged into chaos and permanently damaged by the 1971 expulsions—ditto for Reagan’s 1986 action. Such a dramatic, publicized move is worlds away from the Obama administration’s all-too-recent complaints to Chinese leadership in 2015 about their extensive hacking activity, which then prompted an utterly worthless Chinese “promise” to refrain from this activity.
Why hasn’t this been done in the years between this recent action and 1986? The answer would be that U.S. policymakers in the past two decades have sought to be less confrontational with nations such as Russia, China, and Iran. Such “enlightenment” in U.S. policy toward often hostile nations has most recently manifested itself in a Russian “reset” (whereupon Russia invaded Ukraine), patience with China (increasing their annexation of international reefs in the South and East China Seas), and an “unsigned” Iranian nuclear deal (resulting in continuous violation by Iran of their signed U.N. missile limitation agreements).
This unexpected action by the Obama administration I view as a positive action. Although I oppose this administration’s often destructive bluster directed at Russia—mostly due to the Democrats’ sound thrashing at all levels in our recent elections—I can support a proper action even though it may have been taken for some wrong reasons.
This bold action will serve to shake up the status quo. Not only will this action cause measurable disruption to Russia’s U.S. intelligence efforts, but it will also project the message that the United States has finally gotten serious about counterintelligence. Too often the U.S. now resembles the obsequious high school nerd who is thrown into a locker by foreign “bullies,” who then profusely thanks his tormentors for not breaking his glasses.
A polite, firm expulsion sends a clear message to Russia that the days of the status quo are over. For nations that only value strength—and all of our rivals fall in this category—the message is loud and clear. It must be remembered, however, that expulsion should be only part of an overall U.S. diplomatic strategy that will be picked up by President Trump and his administration. The goal of expulsion is not necessarily to draw fury or breed misunderstanding, and the incoming Trump administration can ensure that negotiations and dialogue continue by employing, as the Russians would say, a “velvet fist.”
The wise action to take following such a move would be to reach out diplomatically to Russia, establishing that the “spy wars” is only a sidebar in bilateral diplomacy. In this “good cop, bad cop” gambit writ-large, the Trump administration—playing the “good cop”—can express regret at the Obama move while at the same time accruing its advantages.
The Chinese, whose espionage operations are at least as damaging as those of Russia, will be placed off-balance and mystified as to our true intentions. Will they be next? If played correctly, our rivals could gain a newfound respect for our nation, which over the course of two presidential terms has limped from one diplomatic and/or counterintelligence disaster to another. Let’s hope this first mass expulsion in a generation demonstrates to the world that the U.S. considers this action to be once again part of our diplomatic tool bag, one we can use to rebuild our national security, prestige, and diplomacy abroad.
Scott Uehlinger, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, retired from both the U.S. Naval Reserve and CIA in 2014. He served on destroyers before entering the CIA in 1996. There, he worked overseas as an operations officer in the former Soviet Union for more than 12 years.A Russian speaker, he has extensive experience working against Russian, Iranian, and terrorist targets. Since retirement he has been teaching an intelligence and counterintelligence course at NYU. His podcast, “The Station Chief,” can be found on iTunes.
Featured image: SVR headquarters in Russia