Intelligence File: China-CIA-Israel triangle of spies?

These reports plagued Trump in the press, day after day, last week, partially spilling into this week, with speculation about whether his leak had led to the death of a key agent.

By
May 26, 2017 12:07
ACCORDING TO a story in ‘The New York Times,’ China cracked a US spy ring in the country.

ACCORDING TO a story in ‘The New York Times,’ China cracked a US spy ring in the country. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Is there a bizarre China-CIA-Israel spy leaks triangle? On May 15, The Washington Post reported that US President Donald Trump had shared classified information the week before with Russia about a planned Islamic State terrorist attack, information that the US had received from an ally, but without the ally’s permission to share it with the Russians.

By May 16-17 there were reports that the information had come from Israel. The picture is still somewhat hazy, but top former intelligence officials have told The Jerusalem Post that this version of events appears to be true. Furthermore, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman all but confirmed it on Wednesday, while downplaying it.

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There are also reports that the information came from Jordan, and some top officials have suggested it could have come from a combination of both Israel and Jordan.

These reports plagued Trump in the press, day after day, last week, partially spilling into this week, with speculation about whether his leak had led to the death of a key agent.

But then another bombshell spy leak story hit the news on Saturday. The New York Times broke the story that China had killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 CIA sources, hobbling US spying operations in a massive intelligence breach whose origin has not been identified.

What was so odd was that all of the events described in the story happened from 2010 to 2012.

The timing of the story’s publication seemed too good to be true (for Trump, that is), as it offered the possibility of reshaping the entire Trump leak narrative from “look at this US president who jeopardizes allies’ spies with leaks” to “spying is dangerous, and spies get burned all the time for reasons unrelated to Trump.”



Put differently, at worst Trump endangered one spy, whereas the CIA, on its own, lost an entire spy ring of 18 to 20 sources.

Why else would a 2010-2012 spy ring story suddenly pop up in the middle of a similar spy bust scandal, in a way that could take the heat off Trump, if it was not leaked by a Trump surrogate to change the media narrative? This theory, however, appears to be more fancy than fact.

The Jerusalem Post contacted the Times’s award-winning reporter Mark Mazzetti, who led the team of reporters on the China story, to get his take on the timing.

Mazzetti said that his team had worked on the story for several months, and that neither the timing of the piece nor the motivation of their sources had anything to do with the news about the Trump intelligence leak. He said the story was reported and written before the other story broke.

He indicated that the story had not even been “brought” to them, but that one reporter had just heard something from a source a few months ago, and that since then, the team on the story had been working on refining the story.

While The Jerusalem Post has no independent ability to confirm Mazzetti’s account, Mazzetti is a top reporter, the Post has no counterevidence besides the timing, and few would expect the Times as an organization to go out of its way to put out a story to take heat off of Trump.

So does this coincidence of coincidences mean that there is no China-CIA-Israel spy story connection? Not at all.

Even unintentionally, timing always matters.

And the China story, along with Trump’s successful visit to Israel, do seem to have taken the wind out of the Trump leak story’s sails, despite calls by former Mossad chiefs to reevaluate intelligence sharing with the US.

The Time's China-CIA story – probably because those speaking about it are less worried about immediate repercussions, with all the repercussions having occurred in 2010- 2012 – goes into detail about the dynamics of the breach and its investigation. Those details really do bring out the precariously dangerous tightrope that spies walk at all times.

There are at least three theories for explaining China’s breach of the CIA’s spy ring.

One is that a fellow agent and possibly former handler switched sides and turned them all in. This has always been a danger in the spy world, where agents can flip into double or triple agents at any moment.

A second theory is that the busted agents were careless in their tradecraft, meeting too often in the same places and carelessly in some places that were known for being monitored.

Former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben-Barak has previously told the Jerusalem Post that even the most sophisticated TV stories about the Mossad, such as Mossad 101, were not creative enough in their portrayal of the tradecraft that spies must use to elude detection.

Third is an updated version of code-cracking. While countries have worked at intercepting communications and cracking codes of spies for a long time, the cyber abilities that have allowed the Chinese unprecedented hacking access into US classified networks present a whole new challenge.

Exposing all of these vulnerabilities does make Trump’s reported breach seem less extreme, aside from the point of exposing allies’ information without permission.

But most important, it brought the extent of constant spy losses much closer into the present.

When the Jerusalem Post first started speaking to Israeli and US officials, stories were told about Russia’s infamous intelligence breach of US spies via double agents Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, in the 1980s and from 1979 to 2001, respectively.

The China-CIA story drove home that spy successes and losses are occurring all the time, and that the public simply does not learn of them, or learns of a fraction of them years later.

Between the China-CIA story overtaking the Trump leak in terms of severity, the successful Israel visit, and Israel itself wanting to bury the story, Trump can probably start to breathe a sigh of relief – at least on this particular scandal.

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