A recent report on U.S. intelligence harshly critiqued counter-spy efforts.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
WASHINGTON -- Amid all the criticism of faulty intelligence-gathering by the United States, a new concern is surfacing about America's premier national-security agencies -- their vulnerability to counterespionage.
Because the United States has reached such lone, superpower status, government officials say at least 90 countries -- in addition to Al-Qaida -- are attempting to steal some of the nation's most-sacred secrets.
It's not only foes, like members of terror groups or nations that are adversaries of the United States, but friends as well. The top five countries trying to snoop on U.S. plans and cutting-edge technology, according to an official who works closely with the FBI on this issue, are China, Russia, Israel, France and North Korea. Others running close behind: Cuba, Pakistan and India.
"With the end of the Soviet Union, people stopped taking counterintelligence seriously," said Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Not enough attention has been devoted to keeping people from getting into our secret store of knowledge."
The issue is getting more attention now. The Silberman-Robb commission, the latest to scrutinize the intelligence capabilities of the United States, harshly criticized this country's counterintelligence efforts across the 15 agencies and recommended major changes. During the same week, the Bush administration released its National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States. And top counterintelligence officials participated in a conference at Texas A & amp;M University earlier in March.
A chief concern, officials say, is that Al-Qaida or other terror groups may try to infiltrate U.S. national security agencies. Paul Redmond, a former CIA counterintelligence official who spoke at the conference last month, said it is an "actuarial certainty" that foreign spies have again infiltrated U.S. national-security agencies.
The CIA, according to a recruiter at the conference, has already flagged about 40 applicants who they think may have tried to be double agents. This would fit Al-Qaida's pattern, according to Michael Scheuer, a former top CIA counterterrorism official. Al-Qaida operatives, he says, have already penetrated several security agencies in Middle Eastern countries.
The United States has long had trouble with double agents. During the cold war, essentially every component of the United States' national-security apparatus -- with maybe the exception of the Coast Guard -- was penetrated, experts say. Moles working for adversaries of the United States stole closely guarded secrets, including details on nuclear weapons programs, cryptographic codes and information on how the U.S. spies on its adversaries.
Moreover, intelligence officials and experts say, this is an area where the United States has never gained an advantage overseas, and it's becoming more difficult to operate in an ever-changing world.
For one thing, all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies have ramped up their recruiting efforts -- possibly opening the door to infiltrators -- to support the government's policies in the war on terror. At the same time, the United States has engaged in more information-sharing activities with allies -- the coalition in Iraq, for example, and several other arrangements with foreign governments for strategic reasons.
The United States shares critical technology and weapons programs with allies like Israel. But in the past, and again more recently, the United States has censured Israel for selling that technology to U.S. adversaries, like China. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and reportedly made it clear that Israel was to stop selling U.S.-originated weapons systems, like the HARPY unmanned aerial vehicle, to China.
"We continue to raise these concerns with allies, friends and partners and look for them to take a responsible approach to arms sales to China," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
But it is also difficult for Americans to become double agents and counter foreign spies because of cultural sensitivities.
"We're never going to be as good at developing techniques and strategies [as] ... countries in opposition to us," said Peter Crooks, a 20-year veteran of the FBI's counterintelligence program.
He explains that countries like Cuba, former Soviet bloc countries and several in the Middle East don't hesitate to use such tactics. But in the United States, people find it distasteful, even dishonorable, to spy on neighbors or to try to turn them into informants.