U.S. intelligence community identifies broadening array of espionage threats in new strategy

Jenna McLaughlinNational Security and Investigations Reporter
Yahoo News

BETHESDA, Md. — The days of foreign spies focused just on stealing government secrets are long over. On Monday afternoon, the government agency created to protect the United States against foreign spies unveiled a new strategy that identifies threats from a growing number of groups and countries targeting everything from American elections to industrial secrets. 

While China’s activities remain a major focus for the U.S. government, the new strategy released by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a government agency responsible for tracking foreign espionage, notes that Cuba, Iran, North Korea, terrorist groups, hacktivists and others pose increasing danger as well.

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: NCSC, Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: NCSC, Getty Images

The 2020-2022 strategy, signed by President Trump on Jan. 7, “identifies areas where foreign threat actors could cause serious damage to our national and economic security and where we need to invest attention and resources,” wrote William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, in a letter attached to the strategy.

The top five priorities reflect this broadening focus beyond espionage. They are: protecting critical infrastructure such as energy and financial services; preventing foreign spies from infiltrating supply chains to spy on U.S. systems like the communications sector; stopping rampant theft of U.S. intellectual property; shoring up the defense of U.S. elections from foreign influence; and defending against foreign cyber espionage and attacks.

The strategy’s focus also mirrors the arrests and indictments pouring out of the Justice Department since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled his China initiative in November 2018. Those cases are primarily focused on targeting Americans and Chinese nationals who conduct espionage for China, steal American intellectual property, hack into American systems or fail to disclose ties to Chinese institutions like the Thousand Talents program.

During the Justice Department’s China Initiative Conference last week, Attorney General William Barr warned against Beijing’s “drive for economic and technological supremacy,” which he said poses “an unprecedented challenge to the United States.”

Attorney General William Barr gives the keynote address at the China Initiative Conference in Washington on Feb. 6. (Cliff Owen/AP)
Attorney General William Barr gives the keynote address at the China Initiative Conference in Washington on Feb. 6. (Cliff Owen/AP)

While the strategy names familiar enemies like Russia and China, Evanina and his team sought to shift the focus to defending what’s important from an increasingly large and complex array of adversaries, ranging from nation-states to terrorist and criminal groups whose access to technology and new tools has rapidly increased over time.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center makes several recommendations to begin addressing the weaknesses identified in the report, such as increasing partnerships between the U.S. government and the private sector, and designing new “technical countermeasures” against the threats.

Additionally, the strategy notes that within the government, adversaries are no longer just interested in targeting agencies with a national security mission, as seen in the 2015 breach of the Office of Personnel Management by China, in which millions of sensitive personnel records were stolen. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center suggests all options should be on the table to respond to such threats.

“To meet the increasing challenges posed by foreign intelligence actors, the United States will need to employ whole-of-government counterintelligence and security approaches that effectively integrate offensive and defensive measures and leverage all instruments of American power,” the strategy says.

The strategy also alludes to a major unresolved threat in recent years — the “unauthorized disclosures of U.S. cyber tools,” likely a reference to WikiLeaks’ publication of the CIA’s digital hacking tools, known as “Vault 7,” as well as the leak of the National Security Agency’s cybertools through a still-unidentified person or network of people calling themselves “Shadow Brokers.”

Those disclosures have sparked increasing debate over whether the U.S. government should withhold information about vulnerabilities in software and hardware it discovers in order to exploit them for espionage or attacks against adversaries. In January, the NSA chose to reveal a dangerous bug in Windows 10 to Microsoft so that the company could fix the problem and protect its customers, but it’s unclear how many times it has withheld such information.

Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Evanina called the report “a message to the world: We’re on to you.”

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