Updated Nov 14, 2022, 6:00am EST

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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The Author

Zach Dorfman writes The Brush Pass and covers intelligence.

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The micro-column

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?


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.