By Chris Simmons
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that “A new intelligence assessment has concluded that the United States is the target of a massive, sustained cyber-espionage campaign that is threatening the country’s economic competitiveness, according to people familiar with the report. The National Intelligence Estimate identifies China as the country most aggressively seeking to penetrate the computer systems of American businesses and institutions to gain access to data that could be used for economic gain.”
The newspaper goes on to note that “The National Intelligence Estimate names three other countries – Russia, Israel and France – as having engaged in hacking for economic intelligence but makes clear that cyber-espionage by those countries pales in comparison with China’s effort.” [emphasis added] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-said-to-be-target-of-massive-cyber-espionage-campaign/2013/02/10/7b4687d8-6fc1-11e2-aa58-243de81040ba_story.html
While the story makes for tantalizing reading for the layman, it raises several red flags with this retired intelligence officer. Let’s start with the most fundamental: why is cyber-espionage, which in this NIE is reportedly narrowly focused on America’s “economic competitiveness,” separate and distinct from the NIE on economic espionage? Computer hacking is simply a technique used to steal industry secrets. It should be nothing more than a chapter in the NIE on Economic Espionage. To remove and spotlight this tool is to distort the actual intelligence targeting of our economic interests.
Cuba, for example, runs the largest Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) complex in the Western Hemisphere outside of our own National Security Agency (NSA). Since the 1960s, economic espionage has been a priority for the DI. For example, a declassified CIA report noted that in 1964, Havana appointed General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) officer Orestes Guillermo Ruiz Perez as Vice-Minister for Economics within the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Separate CIA documents stated that in 1973, DGI officer Alberto Betancourt Roa served as president of Cuba’s Chamber of Commerce. During 1986-1987, he served as Vice-Minister of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade. By the early 1990s, Betancourt headed Cubazucar, the national sugar corporation.
A key example of Havana’s success in economic espionage is the case of Guillermo “Bill” Gaede, In the 1980s, Cuba recruited Gaede to steal information on computer software and provide it to case officers in Mexico. Havana, in turn, passed the information to the USSR and East Germany until the end of the Cold War. Gaede, an Argentine communist and software engineer, worked for Advanced Micro Devices, Incorporated in Sunnyvale, California from 1979-1993. He provided Cuba with AMD specs, designs, “Blue Books,” masks, wafers, and small measuring devices.
Experts said Russia, with whom Cuba shared its stolen information, possibly narrowed the US technology lead by exploiting the chip designs and manufacturing techniques, which AMD spent millions of dollars to develop. Experts opined that Gaede’s damage was limited, as the technology used in the semiconductor industry advances so quickly that designs and manufacturing techniques quickly become outdated. However, the damage control provided by the experts failed to address the true effect of systematic and long-term economic espionage.
Gaede later claimed his initial motivation was his belief in communism, but this motivation waned after he repeatedly traveled to Cuba and became disillusioned. He left AMD in 1993 because of mistaken fears that the company would soon detect his misconduct. The technology giant Intel then hired him and greed became his motivator. He filmed the entire process used to make the Pentium chip, down to the smallest technical detail. He subsequently sold the information to China and Iran, which paid him handsomely. The secrets stolen from ADM and Intel ultimately earned Gaede the nickname, the “The Billion Dollar Spy.” He was arrested in late 1995.
The following year, the CIA advised the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Cuba ranked sixth of the seven nations worldwide that “extensively engaged in economic espionage” against the US. The CIA rated France as the most serious threat, followed by Israel, China, Russia, Iran, and then Cuba. Havana, it noted, liked to target American firms whose facilities were based outside of the US. In a separate 1996 report, the US government reiterated that Havana collected “political, economic, and military information within the United States.” The report went on to note that the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) had begun targeting those technologies needed to help Cuba’s ailing economy.
Subsequently, Cuba appeared prominently in a classified list known as the National Security Threat List (NSTL). The NSTL is compiled by an FBI-led, interagency group which identifies the issues and countries which pose the greatest strategic intelligence threat to U.S. security interests. The 1999 list, apparently the most recent to have been declassified, declared that out of approximately 180 countries in the world, only 11 were so dangerous that they were included on the NSTL. These strategic threats were China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Similarly, a 1999 report by the US government’s National Communication System identified Cuba as having used electronic intrusions to collect economic intelligence. Additionally, during the latter half of the 1990s, the Department of Energy included Cuba as one of 22 nations on its “Sensitive Country List.” The DOE list is now restricted, so it is not known whether Cuba remains on the list.
Fast forwarding to late 2007, the Heritage Foundation had this to say about Cuba’s espionage capabilities:
• Since Raul Castro took the reins as acting head of state in 2006, Cuban intelligence services have intensified their targeting of the U.S. Since 9/11, however, U.S. intelligence agencies have reduced the priority assigned to Cuba.
• Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI) is among the top six intelligence services in the world. Thirty-five of its intelligence officers or agents have been identified operating in the U.S. and neutralized between 1996 and 2003. This is strong evidence of DI’s aggressiveness and hostility toward the U.S.
• Cuba traffics in intelligence. U.S. intelligence secrets collected by Cuba have been sold to or bartered with Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and other enemies of the United States. China is known to have had intelligence personnel posted to the Cuban Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) site at Bejucal since 2001, and Russia continues to receive Cuban SIGINT information. Additionally, many Cuban intelligence agents and security police are advising Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
• Cuban intelligence has successfully compromised every major U.S. military operation since the 1983 invasion of Grenada and has provided America’s enemies with forewarning of impending U.S. operations.
• Beijing is busy working to improve Cuban signals intelligence and electronic warfare facilities, which had languished after the fall of the Soviet Union, integrating them into China’s own global satellite network. Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal has noted that this means the Chinese army, at a cyber-warfare complex 20 miles south of Havana, can now monitor phone conversations and Internet transmissions in America. (For the entire Heritage Foundation feature, see http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2007/10/cuba-at-the-crossroads-the-threat-to-us-national-security)
Then, in July 2008, Dr. Joel F. Brenner, Director of the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (an element of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) said: “The Russians and the Chinese remain big problems for us. The Cubans are a problem for us and the Iranians are a big problem for us… and the Cubans have a very accomplished set of intel services and they are something we have to watch.”
Last year, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) told the Senate Armed Services Committee “Cuba remains the predominant foreign intelligence threat to the United States emanating from Latin America.” Shortly thereafter, former Director of the National Counterintelligence Executive, Michelle Van Cleave, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that “…measured by its reach, history, objectives and success against us, Cuba is easily within the Top Ten list worldwide.”
Cuba earned its position as “Intelligence Trafficker to the World” by stealing U.S. secrets, not necessarily hacking our computers. Knowing this, it is disingenuous for Washington to split hairs between old-school “economic espionage” and “cyber-espionage directed against economic targets.” Everyone understands that Washington insiders exploit the cyber threat to generate publicity for themselves and funding for their projects. It’s time for the administration to stop minimizing the threat from Havana and revitalize our Counterintelligence services so they can better identify and destroy foreign spy services operating in America.