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Security Brief: NORTHCOM Week of October 4, 2021

Week of Monday, October 4, 2021 | Issue 32

Nicholas Fegreus, NORTHCOM Team


Aerial view of the CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia[1]


Date: October 5, 2021

Location: Langley, Virginia, USA

Parties involved: United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); United States National Security officials

The event: On October 5, 2021, The New York Times reported on a top-secret intelligence cable produced by top counterintelligence officials and released to every CIA station and base, detailing how foreign governments have either killed, captured, or compromised a number of informants within the last several years. The cable details difficulties the CIA has experienced in recruiting and maintaining sources as well as adversarial intelligence agencies’ success in tracking down these informants.[2] In the cable, officials note how a focus on paramilitary operations throughout the Middle East has led to a decline in traditional intelligence collection tradecraft. There has also been an increasing number of former intelligence officials, after leaving government, beginning work with foreign intelligence organizations.[3]

The implications:

  • A significant loss of human assets will likely undermine US intelligence capabilities around the world. The loss of human intelligence sources will almost certainly weaken the US and other allied nations’ ability to detect and counteract security threats emanating out of hostile areas. The likely increased possibility of being killed or captured by adversarial counterintelligence measures is likely to discourage prospective sources from working with US intelligence agencies. Without intelligence collection networks in place to counter them, adversarial intelligence agencies will likely continue to be competitively matched with the US in areas such as cyber operations, disinformation campaigns, and other irregular conflict zones. A continued delay in improving intelligence gathering networks will likely exacerbate these issues as foreign governments seek to further close the intelligence cap and counter US and its allies’ intelligence gathering capabilities.

  • The ability for adversarial nations to thwart US intelligence efforts will almost certainly make goals such as countering State-led aggression increasingly difficult. States such as China are likely already competitive with the US in the intelligence field. This vulnerability to the US will almost certainly require a reprioritization of traditional intelligence collection methods such as building new intelligence source networks within an adversarial nation’s governments that can provide information to the US on their future plans and capabilities. Without a refocusing on traditional intelligence tradecraft such as recruiting and maintaining sources, adversarial states are likely to continue improving and possibly surpassing US capabilities in the near future.

  • Due to the training and experience of US intelligence operatives, foreign governments will very likely continue to hire private US firms that employ former US intelligence officers. This will likely lead to incidents similar to Project Raven which saw a number of former National Security Agency (NSA) officials assisting the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in building their intelligence monitoring capability.[4] Adversaries of the US are likely to use these examples as an argument for tying the US itself to these actions. If efforts such as these are successful, it will likely undermine US efforts to promote an emphasis on human rights and international law as a counter to adversarial messaging.

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[1] “Aerial view of the CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia” by Carol M. Highsmith licensed under Library of Congress

[2] Captured, Killed or Compromised: C.I.A. Admits to Losing Dozens of Informants, NY Times, October 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/05/us/politics/cia-informants-killed-captured.html

[3] Ibid

[4] Project Raven: What Happens When U.S. Personnel Serve a Foreign Intelligence Agency?, Lawfare Blog, February 2019, https://www.lawfareblog.com/project-raven-what-happens-when-us-personnel-serve-foreign-intelligence-agency

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