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CIA screwup may have allowed China to identify and execute dozens of US spies

A failure by the CIA may have caused the executions of dozens of U.S. spies in China. (Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images)

The CIA may have inadvertently allowed China to discover the identities of U.S. spies, leading to the execution of dozens of them.

What did the investigation reveal about the CIA?

From 2010 to 2012, the Chinese government began identifying and neutralizing U.S. spies in its country with astounding accuracy. Now a joint investigation by the FBI and NSA has revealed that this was likely caused by CIA sloppiness. The investigation was reported by Foreign Policy, which cited “five current and former intelligence officials" who all spoke under the condition of anonymity.

The CIA had decided to repurpose a communication system, which it had previously used for Middle East operations, for its operations in China. However, while the system worked fine in the Middle East, it was not prepared to stand up to Chinese hackers.

The CIA had also inadvertently linked its main communications system with an interim or “throwaway” version used to communicate with sources. The whole point of an interim system was to ensure that if it was ever compromised by foreign hackers, it would have no connection to the main system.

During their investigation, the FBI and NSA determined that even though it was supposed to be impossible, a hacker who breached the “throwaway” system could get through to the main communications system. One former official who talked to Foreign Policy said bluntly that the CIA had “f***ed up the firewall” between the systems. One of the sources blamed it on officials at the CIA viewing the agency as “untouchable,” and “invincible.”

What else?

Around the same time, China managed to flip former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, paying him thousands of dollars to divulge confidential information. Lee has since been indicted by federal prosecutors on a charge of conspiracy to commit espionage.

Thanks to Lee and hacking into the communications system, the Chinese government was able to identify around 30, and possibly more, people within its borders who were spying for the United States. These people were reportedly all executed.

One spy was brazenly shot in the courtyard of a government building as a warning to any others that the Chinese government had not identified.

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