In Risky Hunt for Secrets, U.S. and China Expand Global Spy Operations

As China’s spy balloon drifted across the continental United States in February, American intelligence agencies learned that President Xi Jinping of China had become enraged with senior Chinese military generals.

The spy agencies had been trying to understand what Mr. Xi knew and what actions he would take as the balloon, originally aimed at U.S. military bases in Guam and Hawaii, was blown off course.

Mr. Xi was not opposed to risky spying operations against the United States, but American intelligence agencies concluded that the People’s Liberation Army had kept Mr. Xi in the dark until the balloon was over the United States.

American officials would not discuss how spy agencies gleaned this information. But in details reported here for the first time, they discovered that when Mr. Xi learned of the balloon’s trajectory and realized it was derailing planned talks with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, he berated senior generals for failing to tell him that the balloon had gone astray, according to American officials briefed on the intelligence.

The main efforts on both sides are aimed at answering the two most difficult questions: What are the intentions of leaders in the rival nation, and what military and technological capabilities do they command?

American officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss espionage, have stressed in interviews throughout the year the magnitude of the challenge. The C.I.A. is focusing on Mr. Xi himself, and in particular his intentions regarding Taiwan. The F.B.I.’s counterintelligence task forces across the nation have intensified their hunt for Chinese efforts to recruit spies inside the United States. U.S. agents have identified a dozen penetrations by Chinese citizens of military bases on American soil in the last 12 months.

Both countries are racing to develop their artificial intelligence technology, which they believe is critical to maintaining a military and economic edge and will give their spy agencies new capabilities.

Taken together, U.S. officials say, China’s efforts reach across every facet of national security, diplomacy and advanced commercial technology in the United States and partner nations.

The C.I.A. and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency have set up new centers focused on spying on China. U.S. officials have honed their capabilities to intercept electronic communications, including using spy planes off China’s coast.

The spy conflict with China is even more expansive than the one that played out between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War, said Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director. China’s large population and economy enable it to build intelligence services that are bigger than those of the United States.

Those investigations involve attempts by Chinese spies to recruit informants, steal information, hack into systems and monitor and harass Chinese dissidents in the United States, including using so-called police outposts.

“They’re going after everything,” Mr. Wray said. “What makes the P.R.C. intelligence apparatus so pernicious is the way it uses every means at its disposal against us all at once, blending cyber, human intelligence, corporate transactions and investments to achieve its strategic goals.”

But critics say some of the U.S. government’s counterintelligence efforts are racially biased and paranoid, amounting to a new Red Scare — a charge at least partly supported by the cases the Justice Department has had to drop and by its shutdown of the Trump-era China Initiative program.

China has undertaken its own expansive counterintelligence crusade, one that echoes Mao-era political campaigns. On July 1, China enacted a sweeping expansion of a counterespionage law. And in August, the Ministry of State Security announced that “all members of society” should help fight foreign spying, and offered rewards for anyone providing information.

The rival governments have also established new listening posts and secret intelligence-sharing agreements with other governments. American and Chinese agents have intensified their operations against each other in pivotal cities, from Brussels to Abu Dhabi to Singapore, with each side looking to influence foreign officials and recruit well-placed assets.

No issue in U.S.-China relations has loomed larger than Taiwan. It is the flashpoint likeliest to lead to war, analysts say. Mr. Xi has said China must take control of Taiwan, a de facto independent island, and has ordered his military to be capable of doing so by 2027. But so far, the United States and its allies do not appear to have concrete intelligence on whether Mr. Xi would be willing to order an invasion.

And China obsesses over the flip side of the question. Mr. Biden has declared four times that the U.S. military will defend Taiwan should China try to seize the island. But whether Mr. Biden really means that — and whether American leaders plan to permanently keep Taiwan out of China’s reach — are believed to be focal points of some of China’s intelligence efforts.

In the absence of real intelligence on intentions, American and Chinese officials are focused on gathering information on each other’s military capabilities. The United States, for instance, has stepped up its aerial surveillance of Chinese military bases.

Meanwhile, Chinese intelligence agents have penetrated many parts of the Taiwanese government over the decades, former U.S. intelligence officials say. Chinese agents are now trying to learn more about the Biden administration’s efforts to outfit Taiwan with certain weapons systems and provide secret training for Taiwanese troops. Chinese agents also seek more details on the growing military cooperation between the United States and Asian allies.

U.S. intelligence officials believe that China does not want to go to war now over Taiwan, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, told Congress in March.

“We assess that Beijing still believes it benefits most,” she said, “by preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *