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New Era of Counterintelligence Must Shift Focus to the Gray Zone

Photo: via US Dept of State
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Strategic competition in the current global context is a post-counterterrorism-era paradigm shift that demands more aggressive offensive U.S. counterintelligence activities.  Rethinking counterintelligence and counterterrorism for great power competition is both necessary and urgent.

In other words, though terrorism is still a significant U.S. national security priority, large-scale counterterrorism wars are a phenomenon of the decade’s past. The essential first priority for achieving a competitive advantage in this new era of strategic competition is understanding the nature of competition in the gray zone.  

Gray zone activities play out in a sort of shadowy netherworld that falls below the threshold of a shooting war. They are amorphous campaigns for influence that combine non-military means and surrogates to destabilize and circumvent the strengths of a target state. These malign activities can include assassinations, kidnappings and disinformation operations, alongside traditional espionage activities, but with far more aggressive use of proxies: Think of Russia’s “little green men” overseas.

In the U.S., the threats manifest in more sophisticated ways, like when U.S. private investigators are hired, unwittingly, by intelligence officers of hostile states. In the case of Iran, for example, U.S. private investigators were unknowingly providing intelligence to foreign agents for the purpose of kidnapping an Iranian American journalist living in New York.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a clear advantage in having a unity of purpose because what followed was the forging of a closely integrated U.S. counterterrorism enterprise, complemented overseas by unprecedented counterterrorism work. All of that was done in lockstep with a vast U.S. intelligence community (IC) that pivoted to support a global counterterrorism fight. In short, the U.S. swung into action to achieve a laser-focused counterterrorism outcome: to destroy al-Qaeda.   

On the other hand, with today’s strategic competition, a key disadvantage is that this struggle is in many cases, imperceptible; there’s much Chinese, Iranian and Russian mischief that’s undetected. It is unlikely that there will be a catastrophic event that galvanizes Americans for this competition the way the military and the IC came together after the 9/11 attacks. The competition I’m referring to does not happen on traditional battlefields, cacophonous with the sounds of incoming rockets and drones buzzing overhead. Instead, there’s a quiet, low-level competition for influence playing out in gray zones from Africa to Asia.   

Counterintelligence is the “coin of the realm” in this fight. It is said that the most effective counterintelligence work is both defensive and offensive simultaneously. I am confident that the FBI has digested that principle in terms of its work against hostile spies here in the U.S. homeland.

Three counterespionage cases made public in October show how the FBI disrupted over a dozen Chinese intelligence officers and their operations here in the United States. Beijing’s spies were trying to recruit a U.S. official to give up secrets about an ongoing prosecution of a major Chinese business interest. The FBI fed the Chinese convincingly false information, and then sprung their trap. The other two cases were about Chinese spies trying to recruit Americans and harass dissidents here in the U.S. These three cases are a good example of the FBI playing both defense and offense simultaneously.  

Aggressive intelligence operations are being employed by Iran, China and Russia. Keeping that in mind, consider the recent Chinese spy balloon that brazenly operated in U.S. airspace. Metaphorically, if ever there was an example of aggressive counterintelligence work, it’s an F-22 shooting down a Chinese Spy balloon in U.S. airspace, and exploiting the intelligence China gathered while it violated U.S. sovereignty. The U.S. has to take that intensity overseas.

Stepping up more aggressive U.S. counterintelligence abroad demands one key step. The U.S. intelligence community and Special Operations Forces (SOF) must collaborate on counterintelligence in unprecedented ways, like how the two communities came together for counterterrorism, post-9/11. The Brits are doing it.   

In the past couple of years, the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service (SAS) and MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) have come together to aggressively disrupt gray zone operations by “hostile states” like Russia and China. Britain recognizes that the threat paradigm has changed and has accordingly stepped up its work to counter hostile intelligence services.  

Counterintelligence work is not the kind of “find, fix and finish” process that U.S. special operators are used to. But that’s okay, this gray zone fight is more about counterintelligence work, rather than counterterrorism. This is multi-dimensional chess, not checkers.

The U.S. is not foreordained to win this contest. So, national leadership must adopt a new mentality for great power competition. Short of “hot wars,” the U.S. must provide the resources, authorities and wherewithal to forge non-traditional partnerships that can be brought to bear for more aggressive counterintelligence work overseas.

In doing so, like in the aftermath of 9/11, national leaders and policymakers must prevent artificial siloes among U.S. departments and agencies, and enable and empower national security professionals to pursue innovative and aggressive counterintelligence operations overseas — with fewer bureaucratic constraints. 

Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Walsh School of Foreign Service.  He is a former career intelligence officer and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.

Source: The Hill