As China continues its quest to replace the U.S. as the world’s only superpower, spying remains a core means in fulfilling its economic, military, and political needs. The FBI has long considered China the greatest spy threat to the United States, based in part on the research of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which continues to perform an excellent job documenting the Chinese espionage threat (see http://www.uscc.gov/)
French writer Roger Faligot, author of The Chinese Secret Service from Mao to the Olympics, contends more than two million people work for Chinese intelligence. For comparison, Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, said 200,000 personnel serve in the U.S. Intelligence Community. His figure does not include foreign agents working for the United States.
Functionally, most of China’s spies work, directly or indirectly, in espionage performed by agents and collaborators. Beijing’s second greatest espionage capability is stealing foreign communications – “Signals Intelligence” or SIGINT in spy parlance. While China maintains “the most extensive SIGINT capability of any nation” in Asia according to a U.S. government report, Beijing’s historical challenge has been the lack of direct access to satellite and radio downlinks going directly into the United States.
Normally, gaining access to downlinks is relatively easy, as the signal coming towards earth spreads out into a huge cone covering hundreds, if not thousands of miles. However, the sheer volume of U.S. communications requires a vast number of satellite dishes and antennae arrays, making such a SIGINT effort impossible to hide. As a result, China proved unable to collect against most U.S.communications until the late 1990s, when Havana provided it access to the regime’s major SIGINT sites.
Cuba’s location places it in the downlink of dozens of U.S.government and commercial signals. From an espionage standpoint, nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere provides a better site to conduct unrestricted SIGINT operations. Headquartered at Bejucal, just west of Havana, the SIGINT effort run by Cuba’s Directorate of Military Intelligence (DIM) involves roughly 1000-1,200 personnel. Defectors claim Havana also operates covert SIGINT sites in its Washington-based Interests Section and in its diplomatic facility at the United Nations. These covert sites provide unique access to localized communications. Defectors and émigrés also report for at least 20 years, the DIM has collected more SIGINT than it can analyze.
According to think tanks, Cuban émigrés, and the media, Chinese military SIGINT personnel have served at Bejucal and a sister site at Santiago de Cuba since at least 1999. There, U.S. military communications as well as financial and political information is collected and analyzed by an elite Cuban-Chinese military team. In exchange for U.S. secrets, China appears to provide Havana with weaponry, updated SIGINT equipment, intelligence training, and money.
Moscow proved the unique role Cuba can play in SIGINT targeting of the United States. For nearly 40 years, it ran a massive SIGINT complex at Lourdes, near Cuba’s Bejucal facility. However, the 28-square mile facility became a political liability and economic drain on Moscow after the Cold War. In 2001, Russia closed it and removed its 1000-1500 personnel. In contrast, China avoided risking any political and economic costs of its SIGINT endeavor by embedding its staff in Cuban facilities. This commingling has also made Beijing’s presence significantly smaller and less visible, providing China plausible deniability about its role.