Follow us on social

Shutterstock_1330708832-scaled

The CIA's hypocrisy on 'sources and methods'

The Agency’s carelessness in protecting its own agents reveals the cynicism of the US government’s treatment of whistleblowers.

Analysis | North America

Reuters recently published new reporting on the story of one of the worst U.S. intelligence failures in decades. From approximately 2010 to 2013, dozens of CIA informants in China, Iran, and elsewhere were rounded up and executed, jailed, or flipped to double agents. In Iran and China, almost the entirety of the CIA’s network in two of its top-priority countries are reported to have been exposed.

Some in the U.S. government seemed to try to pin much of the blame on a betrayal by CIA officer Jerry Lee, who was later prosecuted and pleaded guilty to spying on behalf of the Chinese government. But Lee’s alleged espionage could not account for all the sources blown.

In a series of articles published by the New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Yahoo! News, another explanation emerged: an astonishing laxity of source protection at the CIA itself. The reporting outlined several lapses in basic tradecraft (which included sending new recruits to meet at locations known to be under close foreign surveillance), but most catastrophic was the (not so) secret communications system the CIA used with these sources. Even if there had not been a mole, it seems hard to believe that the slapdash system could have long evaded the sophisticated counter-intelligence capabilities of the Chinese and Iranian governments.

Essentially, the CIA had set up a system to embed a messaging function hidden in the search box of hundreds of cheaply produced fake websites. The word “hidden” should be used loosely here — the new Reuters reporting found more than three hundred of the sites and showed that a cursory look at their publicly available HTML source code revealed labels such as “message,” “compose,” and “password.” And because the agency purchased the domain names in bulk, the websites were assigned sequential IP addresses — making it almost trivially easy to identify the whole network once a few were discovered.

In other words, simply entering the correct operators into a Google search might have led to dozens of informants rounded up and executed. This level of sloppiness is deeply shocking and inexcusable for a spy service with the resources and expertise available to the CIA. But there are additional layers of hypocrisy and bitter irony that have been less discussed.

This episode coincided with the Department of Justice ramping up its war on whistleblowers. The government used “sources and methods” as a cudgel in these unprecedented Espionage Act prosecutions: they claimed to assign the gravest weight to the protection of sources — so much so that no concern of public interest, no matter how great, could ever be weighed against the secrecy. But those sources were treated as utterly disposable: the agency couldn’t even be bothered to obscure the HTML on its communications system.

In a pattern common to the intelligence community’s most catastrophic self-owns, no one seems to have yet been held accountable. Well, except one person. As you may have guessed, there was a whistleblower. In 2008, a CIA contractor named John Reidy started sounding the alarm through internal channels that these grave flaws in the system were a ticking time bomb. Reidy was fired in retaliation, and his complaint to the Inspector General went uninvestigated until well after dozens of informants had already been jailed or killed. As Reidy tried to fight the retaliation, the government even prohibited him from telling his own attorney anything about the nature of his disclosures.

At the same time when the CIA’s carelessness was burning its own assets, it became fashionable for the critics of whistleblowers who went public to condemn them for not sticking to “internal channels.” Those channels didn’t do much for John Reidy, or for the scores of intelligence sources he tried to save.

The cruel irony would surely not be lost on former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who became a whistleblower when he discussed the CIA’s torture program in a media interview at a time when the CIA was still denying it. Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to inadvertently confirming the name of one CIA officer to a journalist — even though the journalist never published the name.

Again, it’s worth stating clearly: it was not the leaks of conscientious whistleblowers that caused the sky to fall, but the intelligence community’s own chronic mismanagement, virtually guaranteed by the very secrecy it always claims to need to protect those sources.

Image: PabloLagarto via shutterstock.com
Analysis | North America
Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

QiOSK

This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered his starkest warning yet about the need for new military aid from the United States.

“It’s important to specifically address the Congress,” Zelensky said. “If the Congress doesn’t help Ukraine, Ukraine will lose the war.”

keep readingShow less
Can the US and Iraq move beyond military ties?

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani attends an event marking the Iraqi Police Day at the Police Faculty in Baghdad, Iraq, January 9, 2024. Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency/Pool via REUTERS / U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for the meeting of European Union (EU) leaders in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2022. Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock.com

Can the US and Iraq move beyond military ties?

Middle East

Twenty-one years ago, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in the erroneous belief that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction and was allied with al-Qaida, the terror group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. created an occupation authority, but failed to restore order and helped spawn the insurgency that bedeviled it by dismissing the entire Iraqi military and the most experienced civil servants. Coalition troops fought a losing battle, regained their footing with the 2007 troop surge, and finally departed in 2011. U.S. troops returned in 2014 to fight the Islamic State and they remain there to this day, though ISIS was largely eliminated by 2019.

keep readingShow less
South Korean president faces setback in elections

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol casts his early vote for 22nd parliamentary election, in Busan, South Korea, April 5, 2024. Yonhap via REUTERS

South Korean president faces setback in elections

QiOSK

Today, South Korea held its quadrennial parliamentary election, which ended in the opposition liberal party’s landslide victory. The liberal camp, combining the main opposition liberal party and its two sister parties, won enough seats (180 or more) to unilaterally fast-track bills and end filibusters. The ruling conservative party’s defeat comes as no surprise since many South Koreans entered the election highly dissatisfied with the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and determined to keep the government in check.

What does this mean for South Korea’s foreign policy for the remaining three years of the Yoon administration? Traditionally, parliamentary elections have tended to have little effect on the incumbent government’s foreign policy. However, today’s election may create legitimate domestic constraints on the Yoon administration’s foreign policy primarily by shrinking Yoon’s political capital and legitimacy to implement his foreign policy agenda.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest