Chinese spy agency faces CIA – The New York Times

The Chinese spies wanted more. In meetings with Chinese technology companies during the pandemic, they complained that surveillance cameras tracking foreign diplomats, military officers and intelligence officials in Beijing’s embassy district did not meet their needs.

The spies demanded an artificial intelligence program that would instantly create dossiers on every person of interest in the area and analyze their behavior patterns. They suggested feeding the AI ​​program with information from databases and numerous cameras, including license plate numbers, cell phone data, contacts and more.

The AI-generated profiles would allow Chinese spies to select targets and locate their networks and vulnerabilities, according to internal meeting notes obtained by The New York Times.

The spies’ interest in the technology, revealed here for the first time, highlights some of the grand ambitions of the Ministry of State Security, China’s main intelligence agency. In recent years it has built up through more extensive recruitment, including of American citizens. The agency has also sharpened itself through better training, a larger budget and the use of advanced technologies to try to achieve the goal of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, of the country joining the United States as the world’s leading economic and military power can compete.

Once full of operatives whose main source of information was gossip at embassy dinner parties, China’s intelligence agency, known as the MSS, now competes with the CIA when it comes to collection and deception around the world, with the Central Intelligence Agency .

Today, Chinese agents in Beijing have what they asked for: an AI system that tracks American spies and others, said U.S. officials and a person with knowledge of the transaction, who shared the information on the condition that the Times release the names who does not reveal the contractors involved. As the CIA’s China spending has doubled since the start of the Biden administration, the United States has simultaneously greatly increased its spying on Chinese companies and its technological advances.

This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former American officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, as well as a review of internal Chinese company documents and public MSS documents.

The competition between the American and Chinese intelligence services dates back to the Cold War rivalry between the KGB and CIA. During this era, the Soviets built an agency that could steal America’s best-kept secrets and conduct covert operations while producing formidable political leaders, including Vladimir V. Putin, the president of Russia.

But there is a notable difference. Due to China’s economic boom and industrial policies, the MSS is able to use new technologies such as AI to challenge American spymasters in ways the Soviets could not. And these technologies are top prizes in the espionage efforts of China and the United States.

“For China in particular, exploiting other people’s existing technology or trade secrets has become a popular shortcut promoted by the government,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research institute. “The urgency and intensity of technological espionage has increased significantly.”

The MSS has stepped up its intelligence collection on American companies developing technologies for both military and civilian purposes, while the CIA, unlike just a few years ago, is investing resources into collecting data on Chinese companies developing AI, quantum computing and the like develop tools.

Although U.S. intelligence agencies have long collected economic intelligence, collecting detailed information about commercial technological advances outside of defense contractors was once the type of espionage that the United States avoided.

But information about China’s development of new technologies is now considered as important as predicting its conventional military power or the machinations of its leaders.

David Cohen, the agency’s deputy director, said that under President Biden, the CIA has made investments and reorganized to meet the challenge of collecting Chinese advances. The agency has established both a China Mission Center and a Technology Intelligence Center.

“We have been counting tanks and understanding the performance of missiles for longer than we have focused so much on the performance of semiconductors, AI algorithms or biotech devices,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview.

But some policymakers say privately that efforts are still inadequate and that Chinese companies and the military are surprising the U.S. government with their progress.

In China, the status of the Ministry of State Security has only grown under Mr. Xi, who values ​​bold intelligence operations and a strong security state.

In October 2022, the Communist Party promoted the ministry’s head, Chen Wenqing, to be the party’s top security official and a member of the 24-member Politburo, the first spy chief to rise to that body in decades. His successor, Chen Yixin, a longtime adviser to Mr. Xi, has raised the MSS’s public profile. He has also been given a broad mandate that includes leading a crackdown on American and other foreign companies that conduct corporate investigations into Chinese firms. among other things, because of military connections and human rights violations.

The department assumes the foreign responsibilities of the CIA and the domestic mandate of the FBI, coupled with an authoritarian influence. The MSS’s mission is to conduct intelligence and operations abroad, limit foreign influence within China and crack down on so-called subversive activities. Its mission is avowedly political: to defend the Communist Party against all perceived threats.

The current minister, Mr. Chen, has repeatedly stressed his loyalty to Mr. Xi. In June, he urged officials to “wholeheartedly embrace” Mr. Xi’s “core status.”

Under Mr. Chen, the ministry has used social media to spread messages about threats. “The United States’ multiple blockades, containments, and repressions will only make China more battle-hardened and independent,” a new WeChat account said.

In August, the ministry issued separate statements claiming it had caught two Chinese nationals spying for the CIA, one recruited by an American agent in Japan and the other in Italy. In October, the ministry and Chinese state television disclosed a case in which a researcher at a defense industry institute was recruited by a U.S. agent while he was a visiting scholar at an American university. He then handed over copies of secret documents to the Americans upon his return to China before being arrested in 2021.

The announcements suggested that the CIA had rebuilt a network inside China that Chinese counterintelligence officials had decimated more than a decade ago.

The CIA does not say whether people detained abroad on espionage charges are spies for the United States. But at least some of the detained Chinese nationals worked for the United States, say people briefed on American intelligence reports. However, there is no evidence that the MSS cracked the network and the Italy case is more than a year old.

The MSS is making aggressive moves of its own abroad, including recruiting a far-right Belgian politician and harassing the party’s ethnic Chinese critics. According to a Justice Department indictment, an agent hired a local private investigator to physically attack a Chinese-American candidate for U.S. Congress on Long Island. Another man is accused of helping to set up an organization in New York that attracted dissidents.

The central government in Beijing set up the Ministry of State Security in 1983 as part of a reshuffle of security units. For decades, the agency struggled to win the favor of party leaders. Its Chinese rival, the intelligence services of the People’s Liberation Army, had greater resources and better craftsmanship, particularly in cyber espionage.

The Ministry of State Security gradually improved its tactics, received larger budgets, and even developed business expertise. Some MSS officers, who would work undercover as businessmen, were sent to private sector offices for training, said Peter Mattis, a former CIA analyst and co-author of a book on Chinese espionage.

Chinese agents also expanded their recruiting targets abroad, including among U.S. citizens.

U.S. intelligence agencies were alarmed when they discovered that the Shanghai MSS had recruited an American student in China, Glenn Duffie Shriver, and persuaded him to apply to the CIA and the State Department. Mr. Shriver was sentenced to four years in prison in 2011. “It was a big sign that MSS has improved its commercial strategy by targeting non-Chinese Americans for the first time and attempting to penetrate the U.S. intelligence community,” said John Culver, a former U.S. intelligence analyst.

The case had far-reaching consequences. This made U.S. counterintelligence officials more wary of applicants for U.S. government jobs who had studied or had contacts in China and directed their attention to MSS provincial offices.

The offices are their own fiefdoms and are based outside the agency’s national headquarters, located in the secret Xiyuan compound in northwest Beijing. Under Mr. Xi, they have become more aggressive in operations abroad, with some specializing in recruiting and running informants in the United States.

The office in Jiangsu province, next to Shanghai, is another office focused on obtaining American secrets and particularly defense technologies, U.S. officials said.

Officials recruited Ji Chaoqun shortly before he left for the United States in 2013 to study engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, according to Justice Department and court documents. His MSS associate, Xu Yanjun, got him to provide the names of at least nine people in the United States so that the Chinese spy service could recruit them to procure aerospace and satellite technologies.

Mr. Ji eventually joined the U.S. Army Reserves, where he pursued a security clearance so he could eventually apply for work with the CIA, FBI or NASA. He was arrested in Chicago in 2018 and sentenced to eight years in prison this year. Mister

Unlike Russian agents, MSS case officers generally avoid undercover operations in the United States, preferring instead to manage agents or assets from outside and recruit online, including using job postings with no obvious ties to China, U.S. officials said .

Around 2018, a Singaporean MSS agent “founded a fake consulting firm that used the same name as a well-known U.S. consulting firm and posted online job advertisements under that company name,” said Michael C. Casey, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

MSS often recruits directly from universities, particularly for core positions, according to a review of more than 30 online job postings by the agency. The company has been looking for technology professionals, including hackers, in recent years, according to two people with knowledge of the recruiting effort.

Beijing’s biggest concern is that the United States and its allies could cut China off from technological know-how that is crucial to economic and military growth. Mr. Xi has emphasized this risk.

Mr. Chen, the state security minister, wrote in an article in September that “nuclear technologies” remained under the control of other nations and that achieving “technological self-reliance” was an urgent task.

Chinese government experts openly admire the collection capabilities of American intelligence agencies and their technology. Chinese intelligence journals often publish studies examining U.S. operations. A recent study of the U.S. national security services by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, the main MSS research institute, said: “Based on an in-depth assessment of relevant U.S. methods, China should decide what works and abandon it .” what not.”

The MSS has also promoted experts for the United States. Earlier this year, one of those analysts, Yuan Peng, president of the main research institute, took over as vice minister of the ministry itself under the new name Yuan Yikun. Early in his career, Mr. Yuan socialized frequently with American scholars, some of whom viewed him as a cool observer of Washington.

As president of the research institute, Mr. Yuan became a champion of Mr. Xi’s sweeping concept of “total national security,” which portrays the United States as the biggest threat to China’s rise.

“Biden said ‘America is back,’ but the world is no longer the same as it was, and if it cannot keep up with massive global changes, this changing world will inevitably slip out of U.S. control,” Mr. Yuan wrote international strategy assessment published in early 2022. “In assessing current American overall strategy a few decades from now, the biggest mistake may be choosing China as the enemy.”

One of the first major decisions made by William J. Burns, the CIA director, was the creation of the China Mission Center. The idea was to ensure that broadcasters around the world, not just in Asia, focused on gathering information about China.

Mr Burns made the move following a strategic review led by Michael Collins, a career intelligence officer. Under Mr. Burns, Mr. Collins was named director of strategy, tasked with helping improve the agency’s work in China.

China’s challenge requires the United States to “proceed smartly in critical areas such as biotechnology and semiconductors,” said Mr. Collins, who now heads the National Intelligence Council, a coordinating body for all spy agencies. “We have to do better.”

To better understand what technologies China is targeting, the CIA has begun asking American executives and scientists for insights into what Chinese companies are trying to develop. American universities and companies, which Chinese investors and researchers often turn to, have knowledge of the specific technologies, U.S. officials said.

But officials said it was important to include people with deeper knowledge of China’s commercial and technological ambitions. Currently, intelligence agencies are struggling to provide policymakers with information as quickly as they need it.

Last year, a Canadian company, TechInsights, announced that China’s leading chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, had developed a seven-nanometer chip. The U.S. government was unaware of the advance and was surprised that the Chinese company made the leap so quickly, said Jimmy Goodrich, a Chinese technology expert who advises the RAND Corporation.

“The intelligence community is simply not institutionally prepared to understand China’s trade and technology problems,” he said. “It’s difficult.” And more importantly, you really have to think like a Wall Street analyst and market researcher and talk to everyone along the supply chain.”

(A U.S. official said American intelligence agencies had determined before the Canadian report that the company was at least capable of producing the smaller chip.)

Part of the problem is that U.S. intelligence agencies prefer information from satellites, interceptors and human spies. A senior U.S. official said analysts overlooked valuable intelligence from unclassified sources in China.

“The U.S. intelligence community can do amazing things when it comes to targeting,” said Mr. Mattis, the former CIA analyst. “But it can sometimes be difficult to create broad awareness, such as understanding China’s technological capabilities.”