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Botched CIA Communications System Helped Blow Cover of Chinese Agents 

Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

The number of informants executed in the debacle is higher than initially thought.

reports: It was considered one of the CIA’s worst failures in decades: Over a two-year period starting in late 2010, Chinese authorities systematically dismantled the agency’s network of agents across the country, executing dozens of suspected U.S. spies. But since then, a question has loomed over the entire debacle.

How were the Chinese able to roll up the network?

Now, nearly eight years later, it appears that the agency botched the communication system it used to interact with its sources, according to five current and former intelligence officials. The CIA had imported the system from its Middle East operations, where the online environment was considerably less hazardous, and apparently underestimated China’s ability to penetrate it.

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“The attitude was that we’ve got this, we’re untouchable,” said one of the officials who, like the others, declined to be named discussing sensitive information. The former official described the attitude of those in the agency who worked on China at the time as “invincible.”

Other factors played a role as well, including China’s alleged recruitment of former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee around the same time. Federal prosecutors indicted Lee earlier this year in connection with the affair.

But the penetration of the communication system seems to account for the speed and accuracy with which Chinese authorities moved against the CIA’s China-based assets.

“You could tell the Chinese weren’t guessing. The Ministry of State Security [which handles both foreign intelligence and domestic security] were always pulling in the right people,” one of the officials said.

“When things started going bad, they went bad fast.” Read the rest of this entry »

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G20 ‘Honey Trap’ Warning: Fears Prime Minister’s Officials will be Seduced by Chinese Spies and Have Hotel Rooms Bugged

British government aides have fallen victim to spying on previous official trips to China, with one Downing Street official reported to have had his mobile phone and secret documents stolen after he was seduced.

Government security chiefs are anxious to avoid a repeat of the incident, which took place during a visit by Gordon Brown in 2008, and have provided detailed guidance to Mrs May’s team.

The Prime Minister’s officials have been warned to take steps to protect themselves during the G20 summit, which begins on Sunday.

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Officials travelling with Mrs May have been issued with temporary mobile phones and email addresses in an attempt to evade Chinese state hackers.

Security advisers are also warning staff not to keep gifts they receive and to be particularly wary of electronic devices, such as free computer memory sticks, mobile phone SIM cards or chargers which they are offered by their Chinese hosts.

One Whitehall source said security chiefs had warned them that hotel rooms used during the summit were likely to be bugged. “We have been told that if you feel uncomfortable about people seeing you naked, you should get changed under your bedclothes,” the source said.

Damian McBride, left, was then prime minister Gordon Brown's special advisor CREDIT: BRUCE ADAMS/REX

Damian McBride, left, was then prime minister Gordon Brown’s special advisor CREDIT: BRUCE ADAMS/REX

British security agencies regard China as one of the most aggressive nations when it comes to launching cyber-attacks against western governments and businesses, as well as posing a major espionage threat to the UK.

Chinese technological expertise has prompted security concerns at the highest levels of government and British intelligence.

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There are fears that Chinese intelligence agents will use their capability to intercept emails and phone calls and to install spy software on computers during the summit.

However, one of the gravest threats posed by foreign spies is also one of the oldest: the honey trap.

During Mr Brown’s visit to China in 2008, one of the No 10 officials accompanying the then Prime Minister reportedly fell prey to a “beautiful” female Chinese spy. She went back to his hotel room, drugged him, stole his mobile phone and documents from his briefcase.

The incident was described by Mr Brown’s former spin doctor, Damien McBride, in his 2013 memoir, Power Trip.

The No 10 team was “accosted on one side by a beautiful posse of Chinese girls and on the other side by an equivalent group of Russian blondes”, Mr McBride said.

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He wrote:

Even before our resident security expert could warn us that their interest was not to be taken at face value, we looked up and saw one of our number disappearing up the stairs to the exit with one of the girls, beaming back at us.

He woke up the following morning “minus his Blackberry and half the contents of his briefcase”.

The official also had a “‘very bad headache, owning to the Mickey Finn nightcap his overnight companion had administered to him in his hotel room”.

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The G20 summit in Hangzhou comes at a time of heightened tension between Britain and China. Within weeks of entering Downing Street in July, Mrs May put on hold a final decision on whether to approve a Chinese-backed new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Read the rest of this entry »


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Better Informed Than Congress: China’s Cyber Spies Reading Emails of Senior Obama Administration Officials Since 2010

President Barack Obama reflects during a meeting with his full Cabinet in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The email grab — first codenamed ‘Dancing Panda’ by U.S. officials, and then ‘Legion Amethyst’ — was detected in April 2010, according to a top secret NSA briefing from 2014. The intrusion into personal emails was still active at the time of the briefing and, according to the senior official, is still going on. 

Robert Windrem reports: China’s cyber spies have accessed the private emails of “many” top Obama administration officials, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official and a top secret document obtained by NBC News, and have been doing so since at least April 2010.

chinese hackers

The email grab — first codenamed “Dancing Panda” by U.S. officials, and then “Legion Amethyst” — was detected in April 2010, according to a top secret NSA briefing from 2014. The intrusion into personal emails was still active at the time of the briefing and, according to the senior official, is still going on.

In 2011, Google disclosed that the private gmail accounts of some U.S. officials had been compromised, but the briefing shows that private email accounts from other providers were compromised as well.

An NSA slide shows the organization of the Chinese government’s hacking units, with separate operations run by the Chinese military and by state security. NBC News

An NSA slide shows the organization of the Chinese government’s hacking units, with separate operations run by the Chinese military and by state security. NBC News

The government email accounts assigned to the officials, however, were not hacked because they are more secure, says the senior U.S. intelligence official.

The senior official says the private emails of “all top national security and trade officials” were targeted.

[Read the full text here, at NBC News]

The Chinese also harvested the email address books of targeted officials, according to the document, reconstructing and then “exploiting the(ir) social networks” by sending malware to their friends and colleagues.

White-House-Jarret-Axelrod-Oval-Office

The time period overlaps with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account while Secretary of State from Jan. 21, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2013. The names and ranks of the officials whose emails were actually grabbed, however, were not disclosed in the NSA briefing nor by the intelligence official. Read the rest of this entry »