China has “systematically dismantled” US spying operations in the country by killing or imprisoning at least a dozen CIA sources since 2010, according to a report.
The Chinese government “effectively unravelled” a covert network built up over a number of years in what anonymous US officials described as the worst intelligence breach in decades.
In a report in the New York Times, the newspaper claimed Beijing managed to freeze US intelligence gathering in the country by killing or imprisoning 18 out of 20 sources over two years.
According to officials, one source was shot in front of a government building as a warning to others.
US officials, speaking under anonymity, told the newspaper that the cause of the fallout is yet to be determined – and that some suspect a mole.
In its report, the New York Times cited 10 current or former intelligence officials about China wiping out the US’s spying network.
An investigation into the breach allegedly caused division among US officials, with some believing a mole in the CIA to be behind the crisis and others arguing the Chinese had hacked the covert system of contact between the CIA and spies on the ground.
Officials agreed however that the setback had been one of the worst in decades for the US intelligence community.
The number of American sources lost in China was compared to significant breaches in the former Soviet Union.
Within the FBI, some agents reportedly suspected sloppy work by CIA handlers in Beijing might have been to blame for the losses.
Former officials said that a restaurant used for meetings with sources had had been fitted with listening devices and staffed with waiters who were Chinese agents.
According to the New York Times, by 2013 the FBI and CIA had concluded that China no longer had the ability to identify American agents.