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When spies go on offense

This micro-column was written by an outside contributor. It was first published on Nov. 8 in Flagship, our daily newsletter that distills what’s happening in the world into a concise, insightful morning read.

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Zach Dorfman writes The Brush Pass and covers intelligence.

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Aerial view of CIA headquarters.
Aerial view of CIA headquarters. CreativeCommons/Carol Highsmith

The U.S. last month announced indictments against two alleged Chinese intelligence officers — men who are unlikely to ever appear in an American courtroom. Why would prosecutors pursue these charges, given the case almost certainly won’t result in a conviction?

Sometimes, an indictment is just an indictment, and the purported legal violation is what matters. In cases like this one, national security officials use indictments as a wider tool of statecraft — to go on offense.

Occasionally, for example, as part of espionage-related indictments, the U.S. will release candid photos of alleged spies, say, sitting at their desks. Including such a photo isn’t happenstance; it’s a signal. The U.S. intelligence community is saying, We’ve been watching you, we’ve had access to your device. That can then send the affected party — and their intelligence service — into a frenzy. How long have they been compromised? Are there other breaches? What other operations may have been affected?

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The net result is to send an opponent spinning, wasting their time and resources. Every working day an adversary is scrubbing their digital networks or embarking on a mole hunt is a day they’re not stealing secrets or recruiting sources. Intelligence agencies are bureaucracies, and the opportunity costs can be real.

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