Details are coming to light about a massive compromise of a CIA communications system between 2008 and 2013 that resulted in the deaths of dozens of covert operatives, according to The Telegraph. The American intelligence community experienced crippling failures due to a flaw in a secret internet-based communications system that was discovered by Iran through a simple Google search, according to 11 former intelligence and government officials with direct knowledge of the incident.
In 2009, after the CIA discovered Iran’s secret underground uranium enrichment facility which uncovered their nuclear aspirations, the angry Iranians sought to smoke out any American operatives and traitors that they could find. The Iranians used an unlikely — or perhaps an extremely likely — source to discover a website that the U.S. government was using to communicate with its agents in the field. They turned to Google. Google continually digs for information to identify all of the world’s websites, and thus is an outstanding investigative tool, even for the agents of espionage. Google’s search functions allow for advanced operators to weed out and isolate websites with extreme specificity.
The website that the CIA was using was originally used in war zones in the Middle East, and was not built to withstand the sophisticated counterintelligence measures of a state actor like Iran or China. It was never meant to be a long-term platform for agents to communicate, but its ease of use and years of continuing undetection led to complacency and a false sense of security, according to Yahoo!
Once Iran discovered the covert communications site, they were able to trace other sites with similar digital signatures or components until they hit on the right string of advanced search terms to locate other secret CIA sites. The Iranians began to then track who was visiting these sites, and from where, and began to unravel the CIA network. By 2010, Iran was identifying CIA agents. By 2011, they had broken up a ring of over 30 CIA operatives. Some of the agents were executed, while others were imprisoned. The CIA was able to extract some of the operatives before they were captured, but the breach was incredibly damaging to the U.S. intelligence community at a time when tensions with Iran were escalating.
On the heels of the Iranian espionage debacle, in 2011, China broke up a similar ring of American spies, leading to the execution of over 30 CIA operatives in China. U.S. officials believe that Chinese counterintelligence broke through a firewall of a communications platform similar to the one used in Iran, compromising the entire network of assets in China.
It is not clear whether China and Iran cooperated, or if they both reached the same conclusion independently. However, the CIA was aware of senior-level communications on cyber issues between Iran, China, and Russia at the time that one U.S. intelligence official said was “very suspicious in hindsight.” While the U.S. government is unsure about a potential alliance between the three nations before its agents were compromised, U.S. intelligence is certain that China shared information about their penetration of the communications system with Russia after the purge.
The catastrophic breach may have worldwide consequences, and the CIA is still dealing with the fallout. The cascade of consequences from the breach flows outward, and the CIA doesn’t know just how far down this rabbit hole goes. Iran has continued to aggressively pursue U.S. intelligence on the internet, exposing communications systems and agents in other countries and damaging the CIA beyond Iran’s own borders. Other nations have followed Iran’s lead, leading to the disruption of the entire Middle East network.