by Makayla Mason
I always enjoy and look forward to World Affairs Council events, but I was particularly excited about this webinar. I have been reading James Olson’s book Fair Play: The Moral Dilemma of Spying. and he has recently come out with a new book: To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. I have also had the opportunity to see Mr. Olson speak in person multiple occasions at the Texas A&M Bush School; I was even able to speak to him after an event a couple of years ago….
…and Olson was generous enough to come to SHSU and speak at a program hosted by LEAP–which resulted in a packed house.
The webinar began with a brief introduction by World Affairs Council’s Sandjia Bayot.
She informed us that over 700 people were registered for the event! She of course introduced the man of the hour, James Olson.
Mr. Olson served for over thirty years as the Directorate of Operations for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He is currently a professor, teaching intelligence and counter intelligence, at the Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service.
The moderator for the event was World Affairs Council’s Ronan O’Malley.
Ronan dove right in, asking about the three most threatening nations to the United States: China, Russia, and Cuba, with a particular emphasis on China.
Professor Olson described China as having a level of threat higher than he has ever seen before. Stating that China is overwhelming our defenses and stealing anything that could benefit them in any way. It is cheaper for them to steal from us than come up with their own ideas. The biggest thing they are wanting to steal from us is our technology. We are currently losing this counter intelligence war.
Mr. Olson then described how the Chinese use their exchange students aggressively to steal information. These students can get offers from high level jobs, receive green cards, and after 5 years of having a green card, can become citizens. The Chinese Government then infiltrates these Chinese Americans and appeals to their sense of loyalty to their home country, sometimes leveraging the former students’ families (in China) to add additional pressure.
When asked what he would recommend to end the counter intelligence war with China, Mr. Olson said the most important thing to do is be offensive. We cannot sit back and try to protect our secrets. We need to have more frequent double agents. He stated that if he was still in-charge, he would flood China with double agents. The best counter intelligence is penetration, and double agents are gold in counter intelligence.
The second threat is Russia.
Mr. Olson stated that there is more Russian spying now than during the Cold War and that Vladimir Putin is very interested in influencing our politics and our elections. In the 1950s, some Americans still shared Communist “ideals,” perhaps cultivated during the 1930s, during the Great Depression. By the 1980s, however, agents who spied for Russia were doing so just for money, not for Communist ideals.
When discussing the cultural disadvantages that the US has compared to China and Russia, Mr. Olson stated that we have ethics and a high standard of proof to meet. The US cannot access any kind of employment records, financials, or physically surveillance of individuals until there is probable cause, and he is proud of that.
The third threat to the US is Cuba, but Mr. Olson said he would rank Cuba as #1 in terms of “obnoxiousness.”
Mr. Olson described Cuba’s intelligence as better than the KGB’s and more disciplined. At the height of Castro’s power, Cuba had 38 Cuban double agents working against the US.
Ronan then mentioned polygraph tests, which Mr. Olson very much favors. He sees polygraphs as quite useful in finding double agents, as well as for screening new employees. More individuals, he notes, are removed from the hiring process due to the polygraph than the background check. He admits that polygraphs are not perfect, but they are a valuable counter intelligence tool.
Mr. Olson was asked what are some of the ideal qualities they are looking for in hiring federal agencies. He said the number one quality for federal agents and law enforcement across the board is character. He also finds it ironic that they hire people who are honest, reliable, and have good morals, but then train them to lie, cheat, and steal. We want people who know where the line is, and will do their job for the US, not against the US. If there are warning signs in the hiring process, he sticks with the motto: “When in doubt, keep them out.”
As the webinar wrapped up, Mr. Olson had a few more things to say about spying: You have few friends in the intelligence world. Everyone spies on everyone. Everyone is in the business of stealing from America. Many countries who we consider allies have been caught spying on us. When you catch an ally spying on you, call them out, give them a slap on the wrist, but do not end the relationship.
Mr. Olson declared that his true love is spy catching, and that if he and his wife (who also worked for the CIA) could start all over again, they would get into the China program and learn Mandarin, because they are currently the #1 threat.
Mr. Olson ended the webinar by stating that the first line of defense is an informed public–which, as a former LEAP Ambassador, I agreed.