The New York Times offered a deeply disturbing scoop over the weekend: from 2010 to 2012, Beijing effectively demolished a deep network of CIA spies within China, with a spate of killings and jailings that dealt a devastating blow to our intel capabilities. More:
Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.
But there was no disagreement about the damage. […]
All told, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the C.I.A.’s sources in China, according to two former senior American officials, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build.
The Times story offers further evidence of what has long been apparent: whether through neglect or mismanagement, the Obama administration presided over a series of breaches of American security that were astounding in their depth and damage. From the ruinous revelations by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden to malicious Chinese and Russian hacking to the decimation of foreign intelligence sources, Obama’s track record on safeguarding national security was truly a dismal one.
Obviously, these breaches were not all Obama’s fault; in the China case, the first-order fault lies with the sloppy spycraft or vetting failures that enabled such a massive exposure of U.S. assets. But whatever work was being done behind the scenes to whip a bloated intelligence bureaucracy into shape, President Obama never seemed deeply engaged with the issue, nor did he make a major public priority out of fixing it. Had a Republican president been in charge during this time, the press would be pounding the drum of failure and incompetence non-stop.
Will President Trump be able to right the ship? He clearly needs to. But the President’s constant broadsides against a leaky national security bureaucracy have led to unprecedented levels of mistrust on both sides. With red hot rhetoric flying and fingers being pointed every other day, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will be able to take a considered big picture look at what’s gone wrong over the past few years. And with the world as dangerous as it is these days, taking a sledgehammer to the whole bureaucracy—the “drain the swamp” reflex that still motivates Trump and energizes his supporters—might not be the wisest approach.