James Olson, former Chief of Counterintelligence for the CIA, served for over 30 years in clandestine operations against the Russian KGB and the espionage efforts of China, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, and was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit and the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal for his efforts. Olson is currently a professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government where he teaches Counterintelligence (CI) to America’s next generation of spy hunters. Jim is also the author of Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying, and To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence.
Counterintelligence, as practiced by governments, comprises three anti-espionage activities, the first of which is security and the establishing of defensive systems and strategies to thwart the actions of those who would engage in attacks, subterfuge, and theft against anation by stealth. The second is the uncovering and curating of actionable information on espionage operations within said country. The third major element of CI entails penetrating and manipulating such operations, typically by converting spies into traitors against their own country by running double agents.
Jim Olson honed his skills as a spy during the cold war and came up during the final years of James Angleton’s grip on counterintelligence at the agency. Angleton was the first Chief of Counterintelligence at the CIA, and was a cold warrior who became so obsessed with the Russian threat against the USA that he became consumed by it, seeing moles and Soviet spies everywhere, and falling victim to what he called the “wilderness of mirrors.” Angleton alienated many in the CIA with his relentless witchhunts culminating in his ousting in 1974, and a severe backlash against counterintelligence budgets and personnel ensued. Bereft of proper staff and training the Agency’s CI efforts were so hobbled that by the mid-1980s America had become infested with spies operating unencumbered on US soil, with the FBI arresting eight hi-profile traitors run by foreign intelligence agencies in 1985 alone.
“Well, it’s true that I think Angleton’s legacy destroyed counterintelligence at the CIA. Angleton was a patriot. He believed in our country, but he fell prey to overzealousness and that is an occupational hazard for us in counterintelligence. Angleton believed that his mission to protect America was so important that he could use any methods available to him to pursue that end, legal or not. It was very easy for Angleton to roam into the illegal side and things like MH Chaos and some of the other abuses under Angleton you cannot excuse.He believed that he was doing good things, but he believed he was above the law. So when you do a steady diet of counterintelligence and you mire yourself into conspiracy and double fakes, you can lose your bearings. paranoia creeps in, and it definitely crept in with Angleton, and his subordinates, they began to see ghosts everywhere. The Russians were 10 feet tall, they are everywhere, our country has penetrated, and it really colored their judgment. And the end result was he did a real disservice by discrediting counterintelligence as a real sensible profession. And he also ruined our Russian operations program for the 20 years that he was in power because he believed that the Russians were so good, that every Russian was controlled. Any recruitment that we thought we made, he didn’t allow us to run because it was a double, all defectors were bad by definition. So we had no sources for 20 critical years of the Cold War, we were blind from human intelligence because Angleton was too smart to fall into their traps. So those are the things that Angleton did to undermine the effectiveness of counterintelligence. And it took us a long time to recover from that, to rehabilitate counterintelligence is as a profession.”
This led to renewed interest in beefing up America’s CI efforts and the creation of the CIC (Counter Intelligence Center) in 1988 which James Olson was tapped to become deputy director, and would later lead. With Olson’s rise as Chief of Counterintelligence at the CIA, and with the lessons of the Angleton era still burned in his memory, he made penetrating spy rings operating in America and converting foreign intelligence officers into American assets a relentless pursuit, making his mantra of “Be Offensive” the most important principle in his Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence.
“(And) I think is probably the greatest of my commandments – “Be Offensive” means that counterintelligence cannot be passive and defensive. We can’t just hunker down behind our fences and keep our information safe in our safes, and our databases protected by passwords and all that. We lose on that basis. The only successful counterintelligence, long-run, has to take the action to them. When I say “be offensive,” I mean counterintelligence that goes after our adversaries and attacks them. I want the word to get out that U.S. counterintelligence is effective, it’s motivated, and it’s highly aggressive. The first tenet of offensive counterintelligence is the most important counterintelligence there is – it’s penetration. We have got to penetrate foreign intelligence services for every American spying against us. There are foreign intelligence officers who know the identity of that person. We’ve got to find them. We’ve got to recruit them. We’ve got to find inducements that convince them that it’s worth their while to give those names to us. The truth is in counterintelligence that very few American spies have been caught over the years without a source Inside the sponsoring intelligence agency, we need to do a better job of recruiting those people. We call that hanging off the shingle. We should spread the word far and wide, that American counterintelligence is open for business and has deep pockets. If you’re concerned about your finances, security, we have a solution, just give us those names. And I want us to see a lot more aggressive job of doing that. I think there should be special bonuses for CIA case officers or FBI special agents who recruit for intelligence officers. We need to go get them and we need to push a lot harder. The second prong of a busy counterintelligence, and this one I go into great detail because I believe in it so strongly, (and) that’s double agent operations. We need to be flooding, the Chinese and the Russians, the Cubans, other hostile intelligence services with double agents. We need to make them gunshy. We need to make them stop and think that the next American they recruit, may be controlled, and we’re not doing enough of that. As you saw in the book, I call double agents, the caviar, because in my experiences nothing is as juicy or more delectable than a good double agent operation. In the book, I have a whole chapter on what the benefits of a good double agent operation are, they’re considerable. And it’s an untapped resource that I think we should do a lot more against. So, penetrate and run double agent operations.”
Few Americans realize the extent to which foreign intelligence services are disrupting our system, spreading disinformation and stealing our most important secrets, with the greatest peril coming from China, Russia, and Cuba, with the largest threat of all being China. The magnitude of China’s espionage operations against the United States is nothing short of staggering warns Olson.
“Specifically, with regard to China, cyber has been a game-changer. And as I’m sure you know, the Chinese have these information warfare centers, all around China. And their task is to hack into U.S. databases. In the high tech community, in the government, in the natural laboratories, in our research universities, anywhere where research development is being done, that is better than what the Chinese are doing. And they are voracious. It’s not just military secrets. It’s just not military technology, anything that relates to industrial technology, anything that has to do with improved agricultural methods, medical secrets, industrial secrets, they’ll go after it all. Anything to enhance the Chinese economy, the industry. Of course, military applications are number one, but by no means do they overlook all these other avenues. The other thing that we see that increases the threat is that, the Chinese intelligence services are becoming more abrasive, more aggressive. It used to be that they pretty much limited their recruitment efforts against Americans to Chinese Americans, they would play the ethnic card, They would hope to find Chinese Americans who had a cultural affinity with China, who spoke the language, who were proud of what China has accomplished. Maybe you still had family living on the mainland, they would approach them through that mechanism, trying to draw them into a relationship with mother China. And they would cast it in as many different ways as they could, but they would play on that ethnicity. Lately, they have not limited themselves to that, and they have expanded their targeting community to non-ethnic Chinese. I mean, just look at people like Linda Schreiber, Candace Claiborne, or Kevin Mallory or Ron Hansen. These are not ethnic Chinese, but they’ve done grave damage.”
“It is a very, very serious problem our country faces. I don’t know why we aren’t taking it more seriously. I think maybe we’ve become complacent. We feel that we are not directly threatened. So much of this is invisible, and people aren’t aware of it. And even when it’s exposed, it’s sometimes pushed under the carpet. – Even when we catch the Chinese, we don’t really hold them accountable to the extent that we should. I think people kind of have the attitude that this is just the way life is here. Everybody, spies on everybody else. Let’s just accept that as our new reality. I don’t accept that as a new reality, and it’s intensifying the pace. The level of espionage against the United States is accelerating. What the Chinese are doing alone is several magnitudes greater than what we’ve ever encountered before. The Chinese are assaulting the United States, through espionage covert action through cyber It’s unprecedented, and it is unacceptable. And my book is a call to arms, a wake-up call I hope, that we need to do more, we need to take this more seriously. The technology we’re losing is undermining our market share, our jobs, our competitive advantage around the world, and all these technologies in which we excel. It’s costing us billions and billions of dollars a year. Not to mention the effect it has on our national security. I cannot think of a single Chinese weapons system that I’ve seen in the last 10-15 years that is not based entirely or primarily on stolen U.S. technology. That is amazing. The Chinese, like many other countries, including some of our friends, have discovered that stealing the world leader’s technology, the United States’ technology, is a lot faster and cheaper than doing your own R&D. That’s what’s happening.particularly from China. I do not know a single counterintelligence expert in any western country who will say anything different. If you ask them what is the number one counterintelligence threat that your country faces? The answer is always the same. China, China, China. If I could start my career all over again, Lawrence and I would love to do everything I could to get, into the China program at the CIA to learn Mandarin and become a china counterintelligence expert because that’s the future, that’s where the threat lies.”
The Russian espionage threat, however, is very different than that of the Chinese, for China the attacks are strictly business, it is driven mainly by the ambition to steal American technology, data, and intellectual property in an effort to gain a corporate, industrial and military competitive advantage. But, for Russia, it is ideological, personal, even vengeful. Their offensive is born out of spite and animus over the collapse of the USSR and the hatred of former KGB spies, veterans of the cold war who have remained in the intelligence community or have found their way into the governing power structure of modern-day Russia, and chief amongst them is Vladimir Putin himself says Olson.
“I do see a distinction in the motivation for spying from China as opposed to the motivation from Russia. for China it is pure self-interest, it’s developing their economy and their industry and their military. It’s not personal, it’s not even ideological, it’s business. But for the Russians is different. For the Russians, it is personal. It’s spiteful. Vladimir Putin is obsessed with America. And he feels a lot of malice toward America for whatever reason, so what he is doing is completely different. His motivation is to harm America. And he loves sticking it to the United States every chance he gets, I first became aware of Vladimir Putin when he was a lieutenant colonel, with the KGB in East Germany, we were tracking him. We knew way back then (that) he was a ruthless killer. We knew he was a man with no scruples whatsoever. And I personally consider him even more dangerous today than he was back then. The Russian’s level of espionage in the United States, as a result, is as high or higher than it ever was during the Cold War. They’re coming after our military secrets, our political secrets, primarily arms control secrets, that kind of thing. They will steal technology also if they can get their hands on it, but it is not the number one objective. And it has a completely different animus toward us than I saw in the Chinese.”
“They are competing with us in various regions around the country, in Syria, Iran, Iraq, all through the Middle East. They have not gone away, and we take them very seriously. We would be very naive to think that the Russian espionage infrastructure has ever gone away or it’s changed its colors. It has not. Most of the people that rolled over into the new FSB in the SFSR were KGB, it wasn’t like Eastern Europe, where the commies were all thrown out under the new democratic governments. In Russia, the state, and their attitudes to the United States are pretty much colored by that even today.”
Surprisingly of all the intelligence operations ever conducted against the U.S., it was neither Russia nor China whose efforts caused the most damage, the true masters of the game turned out to be the Cubans, the communist threat sitting right at America’s doorstep.
“I worked a lot in my career against DGI and against Cuba in general. They are a very formidable adversary. They were very professional. They were very disciplined and they had a vendetta against the United States. Castro focused all of his efforts on national security to bringing down his Yankee neighbor, to attacking us. They were impenetrable. They were tough. We had very little success against them. We underestimated them. And we paid a real price for that. I stand by my ranking of the Cubans as the number three intelligence threat to the United States today. When Castro died in 2016, my great hope, and the hope of a lot of intelligence professionals was that the system would crumble and fall apart the way Eastern Europe did and that the door would be open, (and) we’d get access to former DJI officers who were scurrying around looking for retirement security or we’d be getting access to their archives, (that) people would be selling these documents, and we would get a good inside look Finally at what the Cubans have been doing to us since the early 1960s under Castro. It didn’t happen. Miguel Diaz-Canel is as hardline as Stalin and as the communist as Fidel ever was. He’s holding it together. And the DI as it’s now called is still focused almost exclusively on the United States. And they’re causing a lot of issues. I’m getting tired of hearing about people like a Philip Agee or Ana Montes or Kendell and Gwen Myers, The Cubans have penetrated our government. They are all over South Florida. If you go to South Florida today and you know where to tune in on the shortwave dial, you can hear this sultry, female Cuban voice reading off numbers. And that is the DI communicating with its agents and its illegals in the United States of America and they are very aggressive and conducting a lot of operations. And I don’t like the way they do it. You know, they’re vicious. They killed the pilots who were going to Cuba on humanitarian missions. They have killed people around the world. You know, they have leased themselves out as surrogate armies for so-called freedom fighters around the world. They’re all over Venezuela. We know they’re rolling in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas. We know what they did in Angola and elsewhere in Africa. They’ve been a thorn on our side forever. I’ve had enough of it. And I will, I will dance, I will celebrate when communism finally falls and Coke is in Cuba, and freedom returns, and we can find out what it is that they’ve been doing to us over the years. Because I guarantee you, we only know the tip of the iceberg. They’re much better than the KGB ever was. In terms of discipline, in terms of tradecraft, in terms of professionalism.”