WASHINGTON – As U.S. intelligence agencies scramble to determine the origin of COVID-19, the scarcity of CIA spy networks on the ground in China could prevent them from cracking whether Beijing is covering up an accidental leak of the virus from a government research lab in Wuhan.
Some of the nation’s top spymasters have warned for years, mostly behind closed doors, that one of the most critical components of their overall information-gathering effort – known in spy parlance as human intelligence or "humint" – has been decimated in recent decades by Beijing’s aggressive efforts to shut down these networks.
The CIA hasn’t devoted enough resources to rebuilding the networks by recruiting Chinese turncoats who can pry secrets from Communist Party officials, scientists and others, according to interviews with current and former U.S. national security officials, congressional testimony and other sources.
The result, many experts fear, is that the nation’s premiere spy agency is all but flying blind when it comes to cracking one of the most confounding and urgent global security mysteries of our time – whether the novel coronavirus originated in the wild and spread to humans as Beijing claims, or from a laboratory in the city of Wuhan that studies nearly identical infectious diseases.
“We should have Wuhan wired six ways from Sunday,” said Charles Faddis, former chief of the CIA’s weapons of mass destruction directorate. “And yet 18 months into this, we're still trying to figure out what happened.”
A recently retired top CIA China spy expressed similar concerns to USA TODAY.
“We don’t have good humint in China,” the ex-spy said on condition of anonymity. “And that is going to be a problem” in getting President Joe Biden the information he’s asking for.
CIA officials declined to comment for this article.
From intel deficit to ‘definitive conclusion’ in 90 days?
An "intelligence deficit" or "knowledge gap" has long undermined numerous strategic information-gathering efforts against the authoritarian regime that has become one of the United States’ most antagonistic and formidable adversaries. That includes not getting real-time insider information about China’s military intentions, its persistent cybertheft of U.S. government databases and civilian trade secrets and even why Beijing still exports the precursor chemicals fueling America’s fentanyl drug overdose crisis.
WH: Biden asks intel team to probe COVID origins
Although the problem has stayed largely in the shadows, Biden thrust it to center stage last week by giving the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community 90 days to nail down the origin of the virus.
Without naming names, Biden said two elements of the intelligence community lean toward the likelihood that the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal. Another camp, he said, figures the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology where it was studied after being collected from a bat or other animal.
All of those assessments were made with such "low or moderate confidence,” Biden said, that most intelligence community members "do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
"I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion,” Biden said.
Beijing blocks investigation
Last week, The Wall Street Journal cited a U.S. intelligence report saying three Institute of Virology researchers became sick enough with COVID-19-like symptoms in November 2019 that they sought hospital care – about a month before China reported the first infections. A growing number of senior U.S. officials say they believe the lab leak scenario can’t be ignored.
Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the GOP head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that was briefed on the just-disclosed intel report, described China’s behavior as "the worst cover-up in human history.” The House Intelligence Committee released a report raising concerns about how little it knows about the pandemic origin despite an intensive congressional investigation.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the heads of the CIA and the over-arching Director of National Intelligence in April that he believed the lab leak theory was more than plausible.
Sen. Rand Paul questions Dr. Anthony Fauci about the origins of COVID-19
At that hearing, surrounded by civilian and military intelligence leaders, CIA Director William Burns acknowledged that there are a lot of questions unanswered. “We’re doing everything we can,” he told Rubio, “using all the sources available to us on this panel, to try to get to the bottom of it.”
China maintains that the virus originated in nature and claimed initially that it probably came from a “wet market” near the lab where wild animals are purchased for human consumption. U.S. officials said there hasn’t been a single documented case of animal-to-human transmission.
All along, Beijing has refused to fully cooperate with outside health officials or allow a broader investigation.
WHO report says animals likely source of COVID
Though the World Health Organization concluded in March that a lab leak was an "extremely unlikely pathway,” its on-site team of investigators was allowed only limited access to laboratories studying similar viruses and to data about the earliest cases.
The White House continues to work the diplomatic angle, and Biden said he wants the 90-day probe to leverage U.S. national laboratories and as much scientific expertise as possible.
Privately, few, if any, U.S. officials believe China is going to cooperate.
And that’s where America’s spies come into play.
While US focused on counterterrorism, China focused on counterintelligence
In the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Agency (NSA) and other high-tech intelligence collection agencies have grown more powerful with each innovation. At the same time, the CIA has seen a massive shift of resources – on orders from Congress and successive administrations – away from the conventional stealing of secrets to paramilitary operations aimed at killing terrorists.
All the while, China methodically beefed up its own human intelligence networks targeting the United States.
In 2003, the FBI’s most prized China asset, Katrina Leung of Los Angeles, was accused of being a double agent who was sleeping with two of the bureau’s top China hands. Leung allegedly funneled top-secret information to Beijing and provided her FBI handlers with misinformation for a decade that was deemed so important it was piped right into the White House.
More devastating human intelligence setbacks followed, including three senior American officials arrested and convicted of spying for China.
One of them, a former top CIA Beijing case officer named Jerry Chun Shing Lee, was suspected of giving China the identities of many of the CIA’s most valuable covert assets in the country. He was convicted of conspiring and sentenced in 2019 to 19 years in prison.
The CIA discovered that China had figured out how to eavesdrop on its most top-secret communications with its network of agents.
The twin counterintelligence coups enabled China to roll up a human intelligence network that the CIA had built for years, if not decades. By 2013, Chinese authorities had killed at least a dozen CIA assets in China, reportedly shooting one in front of his government colleagues to send a message to other potential turncoats.
Many others are believed to have been arrested in what many officials have called the worst U.S. intelligence debacle in decades.
High tech 'not a substitute for human intelligence'
In announcing his 90-day review, Biden did not single out the CIA or any of the other 17 U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies for blame.
But since the creation of the modern national security state after World War II, the CIA – as the primary gatherer of human intelligence – has always been at the center of the overall U.S. intelligence-gathering effort.
CIA case officers traditionally spend several years in a foreign country cultivating a network of assets that act as their eyes and ears on the ground and behind closed doors in the corridors of power.
Some work the diplomatic cocktail circuit, stealing secrets out of embassy drawers. Others use elaborate cover stories to attend Rotary Club meetings where nuclear engineers gather. Some engage in the darker side of espionage, using blackmail, bribes, sex and whatever else might work in persuading targets to turn against their own country and begin spying for America.
At his confirmation hearing in February, Burns vowed to double down on human collection efforts, especially in China, saying it “cuts right to the core of CIA's unique role and responsibilities.” The intelligence community has made enormous progress in its technical collection capabilities in recent years, Burns said, “but they are not a substitute for human intelligence,” including spies on the ground speaking fluent Mandarin. “It's crucially important.”
A few CIA case officers, and many more of their local agents, have been killed, expelled or imprisoned overseas when their cover was blown. Others were turned into “double agents” who spied on their U.S. spymasters and fed them false information to misdirect the policymakers in Washington.
But their work in the shadows has resulted in some of the most momentous victories in America’s struggles against its adversaries, especially at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies.
High-tech means of getting information – often surreptitiously and from afar – became potent weapons in the U.S. intelligence-gathering arsenal.
Military spy satellites were tasked to take high-resolution photographs of everything from adversaries’ military buildups to whether traffic patterns around hospitals might suggest the presence of a rapidly spreading infectious disease. The NSA developed ways of intercepting emails, phone calls and even private conversations to find out what foreign government leaders were saying.
“It’s rare that one source of intelligence tells the entire story,” says Larry Pfeiffer, who spent 32 years in leadership roles at the CIA, NSA and White House Situation Room. “The best intelligence reports come from as many sources as possible.”
That’s especially the case in “denied areas,” a CIA term for countries such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea that stop at nothing to neutralize foreign intelligence-gathering efforts.
In such hostile environments, the NSA’s eavesdropping capabilities can be especially helpful in gaining access to the inner sanctums of the political and military leadership. There are also times, Pfeiffer said, when nothing can replace a human intelligence asset who’s at the right place at the right time.
Pfeiffer said he sees parallels between what has happened in China since the initial outbreak and in the Soviet Union in 1986 when officials covered up the worst-ever nuclear disaster at the plant in Chernobyl for its "combination of incompetence, slavish devotion to the leader and not wanting to offend them, and people on high giving instruction that you know, ‘We can't let this out because we can't look bad.’
“A well-placed source is going to tell you how much of that [cover-up] was directed from on high and how much of it was down at the working level where no one wanted to report the bad news up the chain,” said Pfeiffer, who directs the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University.
Spies needed for 'the hardest targets'
Faddis and others stressed that the overwhelming majority of CIA officers and analysts are “dedicated, patriotic Americans working hard every day on behalf of their fellow citizens.”
The CIA has had many more human intelligence successes than failures, according to those former officials, but they said they cannot provide details because they are classified.
In recent years, CIA leaders said, they have made strides in rebuilding their human intelligence networks against China, including targeting scientists and others who speak English and travel abroad.
But they acknowledged it will take time, especially given Beijing’s sophisticated counterintelligence efforts. It takes more than two years of training and language school before a CIA recruit can be eligible for a China assignment, while more career-enhancing opportunities, such as those in counterterrorism, are available immediately, said another former CIA WMD chief Rolf Mowatt-Larssen.
Some critics said Biden’s public rebuke of U.S. intelligence agencies underscores how far the CIA has to go.
The CIA “presumably is doing some useful work collecting information the old-fashioned way but rightly not publicizing it,” says Grant Newsham, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who worked closely with the CIA in Asia for years.
“But the fact that we didn't know from the beginning what was going on in the Wuhan lab – or even in Zhongnanhai – both targets of prime importance to the USA – is prima facie evidence the CIA isn't doing its job,” Newsham, a former diplomat, said in reference to the Beijing compound occupied by its political leaders.
“The CIA’s humint problems and subpar human intelligence capabilities have been well known for years,” he said, in part because of “too little patient concerted effort against the targets of most importance – which also happen to be the hardest targets.”
Newsham recalled visiting a strategic U.S. ally in Asia in 2007 with other Marine intelligence officers when the CIA station chief said agents didn't even try to cultivate human intelligence networks in country “because it's too risky.”
“So I wouldn't blame it all on Jerry Lee,” the spy who conspired with China, Newsham said. “Instead it's a far broader and far older problem manifesting itself.”