December 21, 2007
By Bill Gertz - China's intelligence service gained access to a secret National Security Agency listening post in Hawaii through a Chinese-language translation service, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The spy penetration was discovered several years ago as part of a major counterintelligence probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) that revealed an extensive program by China's spy service to steal codes and other electronic intelligence secrets, and to recruit military and civilian personnel with access to them.
According to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, China's Ministry of State Security, the main civilian spy service, carried out the operations by setting up a Chinese translation service in Hawaii that represented itself as a U.S.-origin company.
The ruse led to classified contracts with the Navy and NSA to translate some of the hundreds of thousands of intercepted communications gathered by NSA's network of listening posts, aircraft and ships.
NCIS agents discovered that the translation service, which officials did not identify by name, had conducted contract work for the National Security Agency facility at Kunia, an underground electronic intelligence post some 15 miles northwest of Honolulu that conducts some of the U.S. intelligence community's most sensitive work.
Kunia is both a processing center and a collection point for large amounts of Chinese- and other Asian-language communications, which are translated and used in classified intelligence reports on military and political developments.
Naval intelligence officials familiar with the Chinese spy penetration said the access to both "raw" and analyzed intelligence at Kunia caused significant damage by giving China's government details on both the targets and the sources of U.S. spying operations. Such information would permit the Chinese to block the eavesdropping or to provide false and misleading "disinformation" to U.S. intelligence.
The officials did not say how long the Chinese operation lasted before being detected.
NCIS also discovered a major Chinese intelligence operation that sought to recruit Chinese Americans as spies, and to recruit Navy and civilian intelligence workers with access to Kunia's secrets.
According to the officials, China's program to recruit intelligence workers was discovered in 2005 after a Navy cryptographic technician was caught accepting a no-cost visit to China, paid for by Beijing's government.
The case led to an NCIS probe that discovered other intelligence personnel, many of them nearing the ends of their careers, who were targeted by Chinese intelligence for recruitment.
The ethnic recruitment effort involved similar tactics. China's intelligence service used intelligence officers and supporters to identify Chinese Americans with access to secrets who would be approached and offered free visits to China, often to meet relatives. The Chinese would then use the visit to attempt to recruit the Americans as spies.
Chinese-American ethnic groups in the past have denounced the U.S. government for singling out Asian Americans as spy targets, accusing counterintelligence officials of racism. But the Chinese recruitment program shows that Beijing actively seeks to develop spies through such ethnic targeting.
NSA and NCIS spokesmen declined to comment when asked about the Chinese intelligence-gathering operations in Hawaii.
I.C. Smith, a former FBI special agent, said both China's civilian MSS and military spy service, known as "2 PLA" for the Second Department of the Chinese military, are targeting NSA.
"There can be no higher target for an intelligence service, and that includes China's MSS and 2 PLA, than gaining access to an adversaries' codes and electronic intelligence," he said, because it is the ultimate in "foreknowledge" advocated by ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.
Getting U.S. electronic intelligence and codes would give China specific information on what is known and allow Beijing to take defensive measures "based on knowledge, not supposition," Mr. Smith said, adding that "it also allows for disinformation to be done with confidence and it basically gives the intelligence service every advantage over the enemy."
The NSA Hawaii operations center employs several thousand people and was recently expanded at a cost of more than $350 million. An NSA press release in August stated the expansion is "one facet of the agency's efforts to evolve a global cryptologic enterprise that is resilient, agile and effective in prosecuting a dynamic threat environment."
The facility was singled out for criticism in the past by intelligence reform advocates because of its restrictive policies on information-sharing.