The entire US intelligence community—17 agencies in all—has been penetrated by Chinese spies, says Nicholas Eftimiades, who recently retired as one of the US government’s top experts on Chinese espionage.
Eftimiades, a former DIA senior intelligence officer and expert on Chinese espionage at the CIA and State Department for over three decades, paints a dire portrait of Beijing’s espionage onslaught—and other top experts told SpyTalk they generally agree.
“I’d sleep at night if there were one or two,” Eftimiades said in a wide-ranging interview on the SpyTalk podcast, posted Thursday. “I would think that there are many upon many, and not only at CIA, but elsewhere in the government as well.”
He added, “I think if we’re talking about [the] Justice [Department], the intelligence community, the 17 agencies including the DNI, I’d be stunned if there weren’t dozens, absolutely stunned if there weren’t dozens” of Chinese moles, Eftimiades said. DNI is short for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to oversee all US intelligence activities.
Eftimiades, who retired in 2017, quickly cautioned that probably only a small number—”less than a dozen”—have access to classified information. Many more are employed to find out just “who’s who” in US intelligence, “and where they’re living and things like that.” But Eftimiades, author of two books on Chinese espionage, said there are “thousands more” moles in other, non-intelligence US government agencies, as well as among contractors, corporations, think tanks and congressional offices.
“China doesn’t concern itself so much about secrets,” he said, like the CIA and other US spying agencies. “It concerns itself with policy: What is the US thinking? In Congress, who’s going to vote for what relative to China? What staffers have influence over what members of Congr-ess…What think tanks are listened to in Congress and by the administration, so that they can influence those think tanks. What academic institutions have that type of power and influence?”
Former FBI counterintelligence boss Frank Figliuzzi agreed that US companies, especially those dealing in advanced technology and weaponry, are probably riddled with Chinese spies. But he said he was “not prepared to concur” with Eftimiades’ assertion that “that there are multiple dozens of active Chinese government moles within the US intelligence community agencies. “ “That’s not to say that dozens of such employees aren’t currently being targeted by Chinese intel operations,” he added. “It’s painful even to read Nick’s professional assertions and consider the possibility that they might be true,” Figliu-zzi continued. “Yet, that’s what counterintelligence professionals must do.“
“Without a doubt, his hypothesis about the private sector having ‘thousands more’ moles than in government is accurate,” Figliuzzi told SpyTalk. “Economic espionage cases bear that out, and that’s what we know about and can track. There are likely thousands that large corporations choose never to bring to law enforcement for a myriad of reasons.” In 2018, the Justice Department set up a “China Initiative” to focus on Beijing’s espionage operations here, particularly the theft of technical and trade secrets. Since January 2020 alone, the department has secured the convictions of 54 individuals charged with spying for China. Eftimiades, however, says that the FBI is overwhelmed by China’s espionage offensive.
“The FBI does some good work. I give them credit,” he said. “They do some good work, but I mean, they’re completely outmatched in numbers and volumes. And they suffer—they don’t have language capabilities, they’re very limited, as their approach on it is an enforcement one most of the time. They’re very heavy handed, I think…and China dances around them a lot.” The FBI declined comment.
Figliuzzi said he had a “mixed” reaction to Eftimiades’ assertion that the FBI is overwhelmed by the Chinese. “First, the statement seems to imply that counterintelligence against the Chinese target is all about one agency, the FBI. It is not. In fact, successful penetrations of the intel community frequently begin overseas, where the FBI is not playing a counterintelligence role,” he said. The State Department and Defense Intelligence Agen-cy are supposed to police th-e diplomatic corps and military services, respectively.
Rudy Guerin, who once headed China counterintelligence for the FBI, called Eftimiades’ estimates of moles scattered about the intelligence agencies “irresponsible without backing it up with facts,” although active cases are highly guarded secrets. But he agreed that the FBI can’t match the Chinese challenge with its current resources.
“I know they have more than doubled their numbers working this target, but it is still overwhelming,” said Guerin, now CEO of Pamir Resources and Consulting, a business intelligence firm in Vienna, Va. “Could they do more? Always, but the overall number of agents in the last 30 years has not been dramatically increased, so where do you take them from? Domestic terrorism? International terrorism? [Those] are still the big drain on resources. They need more bodies to take on their ever increasing mission.” Guerin thinks Wash-ington should set up a “Chi-na Fusion Center” with personnel from the FBI, CIA and the eavesdropping NSA working together to combat the espionage challenge, like the combined counterterrorism center put together after the 9/11 attacks.
Former President Donald Trump ramped up rhetoric against China, blaming it for everything from “raping” American industry to unleashing the Covid-19 upon the world (calling it the “Kung Flu”). Such rhetoric is blamed for sparking an “epidemic of hate” against Asians here—107% in California alone in 2020.
Responsible experts on China are sensitive about fueling anti-Asian hate, and enmity for China specifically, by calling attention to Beijing’s espionage operations—a practice of all great powers, after all, going back to the beginning of recorded history. And Washington has to be careful about going overboard. As the investigative national security journalist Mike Giglio wrote in a deep dive into Chinese espionage for The Atlantic magazine a while ago, “China is both a rival and a top trade partner. The economic and research relationship between the two countries benefits them both. At the same time, Chinese immigrants and visitors to America risk being unfairly targeted if US officials fail to find the right balance, which would cast a chill on legitimate exchange between the two countries while raising the specter of American overreactions during past struggles, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.”
As a longtime intelligence practitioner, meanwhile, Eftimiades has high professional regard for the opposition, including how it protects its secret sources. “They knew Nixon was going to open up relations” with China in 1972, he says admiringly. But “they never did anything to indicate that they had advanced knowledge of anything.” Its spy in the CIA, Larry Wu-tail Chin, wasn’t caught for another dozen years—after he retired. And maybe he wasn’t the only one who knew.