Espionage, Murders and Kidnappings: The Risks of Being a CIA Informant

Last month, top U.S. counterintelligence officials warned every CIA station and base worldwide that troubling numbers of informants recruited from other countries to spy for the United States were being captured or killedpeople familiar with the matter said.

The message, in an unusual super-secret cable, said that the CIA’s counterintelligence mission center had examined dozens of cases in recent years involving foreign informants who had been killed, arrested or were likely at risk.

Although brief, the cable outlined the specific number of agents executed by rival intelligence agencies: a jealously guarded detail that counterintelligence officials usually don’t share on cables like that.

The text highlighted the fight the spy agency is waging as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. Adversary intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan were hunting down CIA sources and turning some into double agents.

CIA failures?

The cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor techniques; relying too much on sources; underestimate foreign intelligence agencies; and acting too quickly to recruit informants without paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks, a problem the cable called placing «mission above safety.»

The large number of informants at risk in recent years also demonstrated the increasing prowess of other countries in using innovations such as biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of CIA officers to discover their sources.


Taliban militiamen at a former CIA base in Afghanistan. Photo: The New York Times

Although the CIA has many ways of gathering intelligence for its analysts to turn into written reports for policy makers, networks of trusted human informants around the world remain the centerpiece of its efforts, and the CIA is supposed to be. the best in the world to collect and analyze that kind of intelligence.

Several former officials said recruiting new informants is the way CIA case officers – their front-line spies – get promotions.

Case officers are rarely promoted for doing good counterintelligence operations, such as finding out if an informant actually works for another country.

Terrorist threat

The agency has devoted much of its attention over the past 20 years to terrorist threats and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but improving intelligence gathering on adversary powers, both large and small, is once again a centerpiece of the CIA agenda, especially as policymakers are demanding more understanding of China and Russia.

The loss of informants, former officials said, is not a new problem. But the wire showed that it is more urgent than is publicly understood.

The warning, those who read it claim, was aimed primarily at the agency’s front-line officers, the people most directly involved in recruiting and investigating sources.

The cable reminded CIA case officers to focus not only on recruiting sources, but also on security issues, including approving informants and circumventing opposing intelligence services.

Security and counterintelligence

Among the reasons for the cable, sources familiar with the document say, was to prompt CIA case officers to think of steps they can take on their own to do a better job handling informants.

Former officials said there should be more focus on security and counterintelligence, especially when it comes to recruiting informants.

«Sometimes there are things beyond our control, but there are also occasions of carelessness and negligence, and people in higher positions are never held accountable,» said Douglas London, a former CIA secret agent.

Some former officials believe the agency’s abilities to thwart adversary intelligence services have rusted after decades of targeting terrorist threats and relying on risky covert communications.

Developing, training, and directing informants to spy on foreign governments differs from developing sources within terrorist networks.

© 2021 The New York Times

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