If we are honest, espionage is like cancer. It infects a place where secrets are held, gradually leeching away the lifeblood until the what should have been protected is no longer viable. Today, espionage is appearing in different ways and targeting places seldom approached in the past.
Take for instance recent Russian expulsions for espionage from Colombia. Yes, the South American country. Two agents of Russia’s intelligence agencies, one from their civilian FSB and the other from their military GRU, were expelled. They were speculated to have stolen information regarding Colombia’s mineral and energy initiatives. Another spy, this time alleged to be working for Egypt, was arrested by our own FBI in New York. This man spied on Americans on behalf of agencies of Egypt. His mission was to determine their dissident activities against the autocratic President of Egypt.
Espionage Has Only Expanded
Many other cases have recently come to light, and what they reveal is espionage is no longer bi-polar, as in Cold War days. Nor is it only originating from major countries. Indeed, what these cases augur for cleared personnel should be concerning. For instance, we are all engaged in a host of business and personal activities, all of which could be exploited by an adversary. Into every aspect of our lives spies seek access to us, whether it is directly connected to our cleared work or not. That will come later. Their first step is to get to you. The man engaged for espionage by Egypt, for example, was a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen. While we don’t know how he was approached, we know that citizens like him are often targeted through blackmail. Their former country brings threats or subtle pressure to bear upon their relatives back in the old country. This was a common practice during Cold War days, when Westerners of Eastern European ancestry, for instance, were often so threatened. What did they do? To their great credit, in the lion’s share of these cases the people so threatened came forward, quietly, to American security services to report these attempted compromises.
Know the Threats
We who have responsibility for securing classified information must know this threat exists, and how it may manifest itself. No matter what level of security classification we protect, we must be cognizant of our adversaries’ actual interest in getting at it. If, as in Colombia our work entails use of critical, indeed rare, minerals, we are at risk. Likewise, and dare we say especially, seeing how our fuel supply pipelines were successfully hacked, our energy resources are targeted. Never fall into the fallacy of thinking your work is too obscure to require vigilance.
So, as managers of our classified or sensitive information, we need to have clear guidance on how to react should we suspect the beginnings of a compromise. If our family in another country becomes reticent about dealing with us, or if they begin to ask questions beyond any reasonably general interest in our work, report it. If while visiting relatives in the old country one of our colleagues is introduced to someone he can’t really account for, that is reportable as well. If in the course of a conference a counterpart begins to ask some detailed questions about just what it is we do, that too must be reported. Seldom will a professional spy be obvious, asking blatant questions which probably will get him, or her, reported. No, they will subtly attempt to determine what your access to classified is. And more, they will attempt to determine if you have access to others who might be of more interest to them. They want to know if you can serve as a ‘shoe-horn’ to introduce them, or provide bona fides, to someone they are really targeting. Don’t be the person referenced by a spy who contacts your colleague, saying, “Oh, I met your colleague (you) at the conference last month, and he said you knew about the project. I’d like to follow up on that.” This is a means of establishing trust, where a spy links his interests allegedly to yours.
Obscure targeting around the world, strange recruitments by nations seldom thought of as focused on America, and a host of other methods to compromise our secrets are out there today. Like a kaleidoscope, they change with circumstances. They change in any way that might help an adversary. Like them, we who defend our secrets must keep ourselves aware of these trends. Let us never fall into the further fallacy of fighting only what we know. Computer hacks are one, but only one, method of espionage these days. Today, unlike in the past, new technologies are exploited ruthlessly by adversary collectors. But that isn’t all. They will employ what works, no matter how basic the approach. If you or any of your colleagues have contacts outside the country, especially with whom you are in regular contact, be sure your personnel security officer knows about it. In fact, it must be updated on your clearance form. Be sure you know to whom, and how, to report approaches by those who may wish us harm. Just like a doctor fighting cancer, we must know how the disease metastasizes.