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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Spying in the 21st Century; counter-terrorism, diplomacy, and economic espionage.

Our world has changed dramatically in the last five decades.  We have enjoyed a renaissance in technology, with the internet changing lives and medical research making discoveries to help people will illnesses and injuries live a more productive, happy life.  Unfortunately the world has also become a much more dangerous place.  Terrorism made its original rude introduction in the early 1960's, and then tapered off a bit, before that eventful day in September of 2001.  Since then, the word, "terrorism" seems to be included in every newscast, and part of almost every travel advisory.  When terrorists were almost exclusively focused on Israel, the battle lines were simple to demarcate.  Today, we live in a world that is slowly being transformed by the actions of Islamic Extremists.  The Obama Administration is determined to not label the bad guys as Muslim Extremists, for fear of appearing "Islam phobic", an unfortunate complication in the efforts to combat groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.  At the moment, the United States is not technically at war, although our Air Force is heavily involved in the allied air coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  Another danger we face in the world today is the rebirth of nationalist and expansionist Russia.  Although we support Ukraine diplomatically and have spearheaded the sanctions regime against Russia, our military has not been directly involved in that conflict.  So are we at peace?

The answer is no, and we haven't been for sometime.  You see, even when the soldiers are stateside and the diplomats are making nice with each other, another conflict is being waged in the shadows.  All nations are involved in espionage in one form or another, and the more industrialized, populous states are constantly looking for new ways to improve the art.  The United States is primarily interested in intelligence for national security purposes, which makes terrorism a priority target for the CIA, NSA, and the intelligence gathering apparati of the Departments of Defense and Justice.  Next on the list is probably China, who has created a tremendously advanced and complicated network of spying, utilizing scholars, businessmen, and researchers to both collect on and occasionally subvert the United States in numerous ways.  Russia is also a high-priority collecting target, especially since the arrival of Vladimir Putin and a return to cold-war type aggressive activities.  The U.S. government remains highly interested in information regarding narcotics and counter-intelligence.  A priority target that does not get its deserved share of attention is economics.  The major economies of the world, even the ones who appear to be very closely aligned, are all in the business of collecting confidential information regarding economics and international business. In fact, it makes complete sense.  The health of our nation's economy has to be included in national security concerns, and the Chinese in particular seem to be determined to outmaneuver everyone in this area.

Why are the Chinese so successful at espionage?  The truth is, they haven't always been good at spying.  But once China and the United States started regular bilateral relations, and Chinese university students and researchers were invited to the U.S. to study and do research, the Chinese saw an opportunity to exploit our openness to gather confidential and at times top secret information.  The larger, more prestigious U.S. colleges seem to compete for visiting Chinese scholars.  Unfortunately, many of these universities have received contracts from the Department of Defense to work on highly classified programs.  On more than one occasion, Chinese students have been discovered in possession of internet connections that are active only between the Chinese mainland and the student's personal laptop.  Our own experts have been unable to break into the conversation between the student and Beijing for a number of reasons, including the complexity/security firewalls of the program being used, and the opposition of the respective university's administration from what they perceive as being "action which will discourage future Chinese scholars from wanted to study here."  Can you imagine a student having access to a lab computer, downloading classified information onto a disk, then returning to their  dorm room to send the information to China, without us ever knowing exactly what was being transmitted?

Back to economic espionage.  Its not just a war between China and the United States; the European nations are also interested in getting a "heads-up" on the intentions of our international companies and investors.  For example, the European conglomerate "Airbus", which manufactures airliners with parts from a number of different EU countries, is in regular, fierce completion with Boeing for new airliner orders.  The United States has economic rivalries in the Defense Industry as well.  Germany, France, the UK, Russia, Italy and Spain all manufacture and export military hardware of one sort or another.  Even South Africa goes head to head with the U.S., when it comes to anti-riot vehicles and helicopters.  To have confidential information regarding a foreign competitor's progress on a competitive product can be invaluable, and nations have started training Intelligence Officers to be focused on the business community for the duration of their career.  Many times these Intelligence Officers will utilize Businessman cover in order to gain access to confidential information.  The United States and France wrote the book on this type of espionage, and they continue to this day to practice it more effectively than anyone else.

Espionage has evolved quite a bit in the last few years, let alone last five decades.  So much intelligence collection has been directed towards force protection, other typical areas of interest have suffered.  But the major powers still manage to cover all their bases and go after the terrorist target together.  The joint intel ops that are becoming more and more commonplace just might be the precursor to something much more meaningful: an Intelligence Service that represents more than just one nation.  I assume that the EU has already broken ground in that regard.

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