Who's Doing What to Whom?

Who's Doing
What to Whom?


The end of the Cold War did not bring an end to foreign intelligence threats. As FBI Director Louis Freeh reported to Congress in January 1998, ". . . there has been no 'peace dividend' in the form of reduced need for FBI counterintelligence operations. On the contrary, foreign intelligence activities against the United States have grown in diversity and complexity in the past few years."1

In addition to the intelligence services of friendly as well as unfriendly countries, sources of the threat to classified and other protected information include:

  • Foreign or multinational corporations.
  • Free-lance agents (some of whom are unemployed former intelligence officers).
  • Computer hackers.
  • Terrorist organizations.
  • Revolutionary groups.
  • Extremist ethnic or religious organizations.
  • Drug syndicates.
  • Organized crime.

The intelligence services of friendly and allied countries are now more active in intelligence operations against the United States than during the Cold War. Espionage by friends in addition to adversaries has long been more widespread than generally realized. For example:

 Here's an Eye-Popper
During the past 20 years, Americans have been arrested and convicted of spying for South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Israel, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, El Salvador and Ecuador -- in addition to Russia, the former Soviet Union, China, and the various formerly communist countries.

In many cases, foreign targets in this country have not changed. "There is still a deadly serious interest in 'traditional' intelligence activities such as penetrating the U.S. intelligence community, collecting classified information on U.S. military defense systems, and purloining the latest advances in our country's science and technology sector."1

In a world that increasingly measures national power and national security in economic terms, foreign countries and corporations are placing increased emphasis on the collection of scientific, technical and economic-related information of all types. "The increasing value of trade secrets in the global and domestic marketplaces, and the corresponding spread of technology, have combined to significantly increase both the opportunities and methods for conducting economic espionage,"1 as discussed in Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage. The illegal export of controlled technology is a related but somewhat different offense discussed in Illegal Technology Transfer.

Important changes in the international economic environment and technological advances have increased our vulnerability to some types of foreign intelligence operations.

  • Lowering of Cold War barriers and the global economy now make it easier than ever before for foreign intelligence officers or agents of foreign corporations to establish personal contact with and assess Americans with access to valuable classified, controlled, or proprietary information. International contacts are now so common that it is easier for foreign agents to assess and develop targets without arousing suspicion.
  • Computer networks and other developments in the information revolution increase exponentially the amount of damage that can be done by a single insider who betrays his or her trust.
  • Our growing dependence upon computer networks and telecommunications has made the United States increasingly vulnerable to possible cyber attacks on such targets as power plants, telephone networks, air traffic control centers, and financial institutions as well as military operations centers.1

The National Security Threat List guides the FBI's counterintelligence strategy.

Methods of operation that foreign countries or organizations use to collect information on the United States are described in How Do I Know When I'm Being Targeted and Assessed? and Getting Information Out of Honest People Like Me. Technical intelligence collection threats are addressed in Vulnerability to Technical Operations.

1. "Threats to U.S. National Security," Statement for the record before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 28, 1998.
2. Information from unclassified data base maintained by DSS Security Research Center. See Wood, S., & Wiskoff, M. (1992). Americans Who Spied Against their Country Since World War II. Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research Center.