U.S. counterintelligence chief warns of broadening spy threat

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From CBS News

Washington — The United States faces espionage threats from a growing range of adversaries that are employing new technologies to undermine the country’s interests, according to a new document released Monday by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC).

Threats from “foreign intelligence entities are becoming more complex, diverse, and harmful to U.S. interests,” the National Counterintelligence Strategy for 2020-2022 says. “Foreign threat actors have become more dangerous because, with ready access to advanced technology, they are threatening a broader range of targets at lower risk.”

The strategy, which updates a version last released in 2015, lists Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea as notable state adversaries. It says non-state organizations like Lebanese Hizballah, ISIS and al-Qaeda as well as other criminal and ideologically motivated entities pose “significant threats.”

The 11-page unclassified version of the strategy warns that emerging technologies — including artificial intelligence, advanced encryption and the “Internet of Things” — will make defending against counterintelligence threats more challenging and require vigilance that extends beyond the government. A longer, classified version of the document that describes threats in greater detail is distributed to the congressional intelligence committees, the heads of relevant agencies and officials with appropriate security clearances at the White House, among others.

“With the private sector and democratic institutions increasingly under attack, this is no longer a problem the U.S. government can address alone,” said NCSC Director William Evanina in a statement accompanying the report. “It requires a whole-of-society response involving the private sector, an informed American public, as well as our allies.”

Evanina, who has led the NCSC, a division of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, since 2014, has consistently warned that China poses the greatest and longest-term espionage threat to the U.S. In public remarks last week at the China Initiative Conference in Washington, D.C., Evanina said Chinese theft of intellectual property totaled as much as $400 billion annually in economic loss — effectively costing U.S. households about $4,000 a year, after taxes.

“This is a governmental problem. This is an FBI problem. This is an intelligence community problem. This is an American problem,” Evanina said in his remarks Monday.

Officials at the event said there had been 19 arrests related to Chinese economic espionage this fiscal year, a figure likely to either meet or exceed the 24 arrests made last fiscal year. 

On Monday, the Department of Justice unveiled charges against four members of China’s People’s Liberation Army for stealing the personal information of millions of Americans from credit agency Equifax in 2017. During a subsequent briefing for reporters at NCSC headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, Evanina called the Equifax breach “a counterintelligence attack on our nation.”

He also referenced a warning made in July of 2018 by former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about the diversity and intensity of cyber attacks on U.S. systems – Coats at the time said warning lights were “blinking red.” Today, Evanina said, those lights are “blinking faster and a little bit brighter.”

While protecting the U.S. economy is a key pillar of the counterintelligence strategy, the document also cites among its strategic objectives shielding the country’s critical infrastructure and supply chains and countering cyber and other technological espionage. It also calls for the defense of democratic systems against foreign influence threats, noting unspecified adversaries are using “a range of communications media to enable … covert influence campaigns” that targetIt also says unspecified adversaries are using “a range of communications media to enable … covert influence campaigns” that target public opinion in the U.S. and among its allies.

Those influence campaigns are designed to “sway public opinion against U.S. government policies or in favor of foreign agendas, influence and deceive key decision makers, alter public perceptions and amplify conspiracy theories,” the document says.

Evanina told reporters that government officials, lawmakers and state and local officials are routinely briefed – if not by NCSC, then by the FBI – on the dangers of foreign influence targeting policymakers.

U.S. intelligence officials have consistently warned that Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. political processes have not abated in a meaningful way since Moscow’s incursion into the 2016 presidential election. They have warned that China and Iran have also begun engaging in influence campaigns designed to further their own respective interests.   

“Our adversaries regard deception or manipulation of the views of U.S. citizens and policymakers to be an effective, inexpensive, and low-risk method for achieving their strategic objectives,” the NCSC strategy says. 

THE NATIONAL COUNTERINTELLIGENCE STRATEGY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 2020-2022