Spooks and Skullduggery
21 December 2011
Two news stories today underlined Chinese dedication to the incremental accumulation of intelligence by way of a kind of espionage gradualism that eschews cloak and dagger operations as well as spectacular “crown jewels” kinds of intelligence coups in favor of a broadly-based campaign to collect all that it can collect by whatever means possible. China is well known in the intelligence community for its cultivation of “open source” intelligence, which means that Chinese agents comb through vast amounts of readily and legally available information, sending back whatever is thought to have some value. Given a base population of well over a billion people, one can easily understand the efficiency of this method for the Chinese.
The Chinese are not likely to have a big spy ring caught or deported, after the fashion of Anna Chapman et al., but they sometimes push the limits and go beyond what is strictly open source. When they do so, they rarely do so by way of cash or sexual favors, which are perhaps the most common inducements in Russian and American spy rings, but the Chinese rather appeal to the Chinese ethnicity of well-placed individuals (rather than attempting to establish networks of individuals, which then in turn seek to insinuate themselves into sensitive positions) to induce them to transfer sensitive information and technology to China.
A perfect example of this is the industrial espionage case in which Ke-xue Huang admitted to stealing trade secrets from Dow AgroSciences and Cargill Inc. and sending them to China. Ke-xue Huang is a Chinese national with permanent resident status in the US. Today the BBC reported that Ke-xue Huang was sentenced to seven years in prison in Chinese scientist Huang Kexue jailed for trade theft.
The BBC also reported today the detention of the Ukrainian-crewed, Isle of Man flagged ship M/S Thor Liberty at the Mussalo container terminal at Port of Kotka, Finland, in Finland ‘finds Patriot missiles’ on China-bound ship. Port workers noticed carelessly stored explosives on the ship and did more poking around, which led them to 69 Patriot missiles in crates labeled as “fireworks.” The ship was bound for Shanghai (as well as South Korea), but of course there was no documentation connecting the missiles with a Chinese destination.
One could interpret this shipment of Patriot missiles as an extraordinarily sloppy piece of skullduggery, which would make the Chinese look foolish and incompetent. Are they? I don’t think so. One could also interpret this shipment as a low-risk, low-payoff piece of skullduggery very much in line with known Chinese espionage methodology. Its seizure is without question an embarrassment, but not likely the cause of an international incident. Patriot missiles are widely sold to US allies. The Chinese could probably obtain them in other ways. Perhaps the opportunity presented itself to obtain a cargo ship full of them, and the very marginality of the operation was an attraction for the little attention the ship would attract.
Every nation-state in the world has laws against espionage, yet every nation-state in the world operates espionage networks, and is always on the lookout for espionage networks operating on its own soil. It is very much a cat-and-mouse game. The Chinese prefer to chase lots of small mice with lots of small cats. The US and Russia tend to have a few larger cats chasing a few larger mice. Each method has its advantages and its disadvantages.
A really spectacular piece of skullduggery can have a huge payoff, but if the spy ring is cracked or turned, there can be an equally large payoff in the unintended direction. Espionage is particularly vulnerable to unintended consequences. And when the stakes are high, it is a deadly game, and assets lose their lives. From this perspective, Chinese espionage methodology looks risk averse.
It ought also to be pointed out that spectacular intelligence assets can be wasted, as I attempted to describe in Missed Opportunities: CIA Spies in Iran. If great risks are taken to place high level spies in valuable positions, but the intelligence gleaned from such operations is frittered away on short term advantages, then you have put your assets in a dangerous position on an indefensible pretext.
The coming days will likely reveal more about the M/S Thor Liberty, though it will likely be months or years before the public gets the story, as with the case of the M/V Faina, the story of which only came to light as the result of Wikileaks. So here is one more plug for Wikileaks, Pte Bradley Manning, now in pre-trial hearings, and Julian Assange, soon to be extradited to Sweden. The poor man’s intelligence network — that is to say, the intelligence network open to you and me — is constructed from leaks, blogs, tweets, private correspondence, and any other source we can cultivate. Without this quasi-Chinese open source intelligence network, we would be even more utterly in the dark than we in fact are.
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The Finnish site portti.iltalehti.fi has this detailed information on the M/S Thor Liberty:
Name: Thor Liberty
Flag: Isle Of Man (uk)
– Cec Liberty (Until 2009 Oct 28)
– White Rhino (Until 2008 Nov 06)
– Cec Liberty (Until 2007 Dec 03)
– Cec Hope (Until 2002 Nov 28)
– Cic Hope (Until 2001 Nov 21)
– Arktis Hope (Until 2000 Jan 04)
Home port: Isle Of Man
Class society: Lloyd´s Shipping Register
Build year: 1994
Owner: Habro Kongea
Manager: Greenstar Steamship
Haren Ems, Germany
Vessel type: Cargo
Gross tonnage: 3,810 tons
Summer DWT: 5,392 tons
Length: 97 m
Beam: 16 m
2011 December 11th, 21:00:06 UTC Kotka
2011 December 6th, 11:00:32 UTC Emden
2011 December 3rd, 09:00:40 UTC Papenburg Germany, probable loading port
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Note Added 27 December 2011: Since I wrote the above there have been several news stories claiming that the Patriot missiles were a legitimate shipment of second-hand German missiles that had been purchased on the up-and-up by South Korea, and in fact the M/S Thor Liberty was scheduled to make port in South Korea before heading to Qingdao. Cf. Finland questions Germany-South Korea missile shipment and Germany: Patriot missiles impounded in Finland were legit shipment to South Korea. This is plausible story, but I remain skeptical that it is the whole story or the correct story. If I were the captain of a ship with both missiles and explosives on board, I would want to make a minimal effort to make sure my papers were in order. Since it was the Germans who confirmed the legitimacy of the missile shipment to South Korea, I have to wonder if the Germans routinely ship weapons systems without adequate documentation, and, if they do, how they assure that these weapons systems are off-loaded at the correct port and transferred to the intended purchasers. And, again, if I were the captain of a ship transiting winter seas with both missiles and explosives on board, I would want to made some kind of effort to make certain that the explosives were properly restrained and did not present a danger during the voyage. According to Finnish customs officials, the explosives did pose a danger in high seas.
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