Part 5 - Espionage

Espionage is an accepted component of statecraft. Allies are even known to spy on each other. Last year there was a controversy regarding how the Danish intelligence service assisting the USA to spy on the Germans who previously spied on the Turkish government. Meanwhile, Der Speigel uncovered the USA National Security Agency (NSA) had spied upon the European Union. (Hughes-Wilson 2017, 161). It proves that there is no such thing as a friendly foreign intelligence service something Irish politicians completely ignore.

Spy agencies seek to penetrate other intelligence services they have an interest in; the ideal penetration is to infiltrate to the very top of that organisation. It would be very naïve to believe that British intelligence had not well infiltrated Irish security services and the Department of Foreign Affairs during the Troubles and later; if they didn’t, they hadn’t done their job. However, except for one high profile case in 1972 nothing was discovered.

Human intelligence (HUMINT) has been a traditional method for espionage but this has been joined by cyber-espionage. ‘The last ten years have seen not only a dramatic increase in the frequency of Russian cyber activity, but also, alarmingly, a quantum leap in the brazenness, sophistication and destructiveness of these attacks’ (Olson 2019, 27). Cyber espionage has many advantages, among them:

  • it is harder to pin responsibility on an attacker;
  • it is more difficult to defend against than HUMINT; and,
  • it is very susceptible to False Flag operations where responsibility for an attack could be placed on an innocent by a third force.

Espionage is used with the purposes of:

  • Spying. The secret collection of vital information;
  • Sabotage. Infiltration of a state’s critical national infrastructure for future denial of service or manipulation. ‘While sabotage was traditionally a tactical measure, cyber-sabotage is potentially strategic’ (Beebe 2019, 8);
  • Subversion. Used to undermine a state’s democracy through propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information. Commanders of ancient China, believed that victory came from hiding one’s true objectives, gathering information about the enemy’s intentions, and creating confusion in the enemy camp by spreading false rumours with spies. (Clissold 2014, 153), and,
  • Stealing of economic information to gain an economic advantage. Here China is the world champion. The stealing by China of personal information for later exploitation is extremely worrying.

Russian and Chinese intelligence operatives have been detected in many western states resulting in their expulsions or trials. In February 2021 the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) revealed an operation involving a sleeper agent who spent years in Australia establishing his cover and building community ties before being activated. The agent then began providing support to a network of spies who arrived in Australia. The Director’s predecessor had previously stated that the main source of existential threat to Australia was China (Pearlman 2020).

In April 2021, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) revealed that foreign espionage by Russia and China on Canadian soil was at its highest level since the end of the Cold War. The CSIS report further pointed to the intensification of foreign intelligence operations against expatriate communities in Canada who are targeted by that China’s intelligence services with threats and intimidation (Allen 2021).

Espionage actors identified were both professionally trained operatives and non-traditional collectors and supporters. The latter are individuals who are not officially connected with their sponsoring governments but who may knowingly or unknowingly be collecting information or providing material support. Individuals identified included members of the armed forces, academics, politicians, trade representatives. Prime areas for targeting are academic establishments, trade shows, and political ‘halls of power’ to recruit suitable influencers, to co-operate with joint research, to progress greater economic ties with China.

Where there is money to be gained there is always someone available to take it. The Chinese foreign intelligence agency the MSS has an elaborate spotting program to identify potential candidates who show themselves to be money hungry (Olson 2019, 7). In 2017, it was revealed that since the year 2000 nearly 80 per cent of the foreign donations to Australia’s political parties were linked to China (Gomes 2017). In cases where donations from foreign individuals to political parties are banned the way to circumvent it was to progress citizenships through direct investment in their adoptive state and thereby as citizens fund politicians. It would be very naïve to think that Ireland is not a target for such activities.

Except for the use of Irish passports by foreign intelligence agencies there has been no arrests, convictions or known expulsions for espionage activities on Irish soil in recent years. It certainly is not the case that our counter-intelligence and counter-espionage systems are so good that foreign intelligence services are afraid to operate here. Ireland’s counter-intelligence system is so poor it took the Smithwick Inquiry to confirm that there was an IRA mole working in Dundalk Garda Station during the Troubles; something which many today still find hard to accept.

Unlike NATO and other EU states, Ireland does not have national regulations concerning a common system for the security classification of documents or how they should be handled or protected. There is no classification differential made between documents that concern the security of the state and other documents that authorities wish to keep private; both types could be marked secret or confidential, but while one may cause detrimental damage to the state the other may just cause official embarrassment.

The Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1963 is a catch all legislation that tries to cover all official documents, but the old military defence dictum springs to mind that ‘when you try to protect everywhere you protect nowhere’. The OSA did not prevent government ministers from using private email servers for official secret business or senior gardaí losing or misplacing mobile phones or laptops containing sensitive information. Similarly, state building, offices, and facilities or official appointments that handle security information are not security classified. The failure by the government to provide a professional approach to the security of information is a major security hazard leaving the state wide open for exploitation by foreign agents and the Defence Forces security exposed by the back door.

The National Security Authority (NSA) is tasked with protecting classified documents received into the state from the EU and NATO and for providing security certification to individuals and businesses travelling or seeking business with those organisations. For some archaic reason the NSA is situated within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT); this despite the DFAT not having personnel or facility security vetting capabilities. It would appear that while DFAT wish to maintain control of the NSA it does not have any vision for its future development and appears in many ways to be an obstacle to achieving something positive.