Tue, Dec 23, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Stepping into the spies’ den

“Anyone wanting to betray the country could do so without having to go to China,” said Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Shuai Hua-min (帥化民) on the weekend in defense of looser regulations for senior political, military and intelligence officials visiting China.

Quite right, but looser rules make it a hell of a lot easier to betray the country.

In the world of counterespionage, two principal dynamics are at play: intent and opportunity. Does an individual entrusted with classified information have the intent to pass on that material to a third party, and if so, what opportunities exist for that person to come into contact with the third party?

Shuai is partly right: Visiting a country does not in and of itself create intent. But allowing a greater number of officials involved in national security to visit China certainly creates opportunities, especially when the country being visited has an aggressive espionage apparatus.

Without going into the increased risk of accidental leak of information such visits would create, the fact is that, despite all the talk of rapprochement between Taiwan and China, Beijing continues to aim around 1,300 missiles in this direction and remains resolute in its quest to ensure superiority in the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) rhetoric notwithstanding, China continues to believe that it is at war with Taiwan, and this belief is reflected in its intelligence-gathering operations.

The implication is that Chinese intelligence will continue to target Taiwanese officials — and others, including journalists — visiting the country. If more visits are held, more operations will be active. And once Taiwanese officials are physically in China, the opportunities for Chinese spies to extract information from them — through means such as deception, blackmail, financial incentives and even “honey traps” — will be much greater in number.

Human fallibility being what it is, officials with no intention of betraying their country can be cornered, manipulated and exploited by skilled intelligence agencies, often with the target oblivious to their efforts. Not every traitor is a Kim Philby — a person who switches side for ideological reasons. Most are not, in fact, and the reasons why are far more mundane: money, sex, love and vengeance.

The dangers involved in breaching the barrier that has minimized contact between Taiwan and Chinese officials for more than half a century are exacerbated by the influx of Chinese now allowed to visit Taiwan. In an espionage scenario, this could create a continuum of opportunities for contact between a traitor and his handlers. This would, in turn, obviate the proposed regulations, in which officials would need to ask permission before visiting China. Once contact has been made and an official has been ensnared, physical continuity could be maintained without the official having to make another visit to China.

Taiwan’s allies, who are not unaware of the inherent dangers of such contacts, could react to this development by becoming more reluctant to share intelligence products and sensitive technology with Taiwan lest they are passed on to China. Should the US, Taiwan’s principal ally on defense and intelligence, reach this conclusion, Taiwan could find itself denied signals and imagery intelligence, or even military components, which are critical to self-defense.

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