The Chinese government “systematically dismantled” CIA spying operations in the country starting in late 2010 and killed or imprisoned at least a dozen CIA sources over the next two years, it was reported on Saturday.
The New York Times cited 10 current and former US officials, who described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
In an apparent attempt by China to intimidate serving or would-be spies, one source was reportedly shot in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a government building.
The report said US intelligence and law enforcement agencies scrambled to stem the damage – setting up an investigation into the crisis code-named Honey Badger – but were divided over the cause of the breach. Some investigators were convinced there was a mole within the CIA, while others believed the Chinese had hacked the covert system the CIA used to communicate with its foreign sources.
Within the FBI, some agents reportedly suspected sloppy work by CIA handlers in Beijing might have been to blame for the losses. Former officials said that a restaurant used for meetings with sources had had been fitted with listening devices and staffed with waiters who were Chinese agents.
The debate over who or what was to blame for the breach remains unresolved, the paper said.
The CIA, which declined to comment to the Times, also declined to comment to the Associated Press.
The number of CIA assets lost in China rivaled those lost in the Soviet Union and Russia as a result of the betrayals by CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who were arrested in 1994 and 2001 respectively, the report said.
As many as 20 CIA sources were killed or imprisoned in China over a two-year period, the Times said, citing two former senior US officials.
Investigators suspected a former CIA operative of being a mole, but failed to gather enough evidence to arrest him and he is now living in another Asian country, the report said. Those who rejected the mole theory attributed the losses to sloppy American tradecraft in China.
By 2013, the FBI and CIA concluded that China no longer had the ability to identify American agents, the Times said.