Are China's Journalists Spying on Us?

So what if they are? It wouldn't be the first time a news organization became an intelligence service.


Jason Reed/Reuters

Officially, the line between journalism and spying is pretty well defined. Journalists trade in information for the public good; spies do so for the benefit of a foreign government. Journalists expose secrets; spies protect them. Journalists' methods are overt; spies' covert. Journalists are shielded -- at least in the West -- by law; spies, if they're caught, get cast off, their very existence disavowed.

Sometimes, that boundary gets blurry. Spies seeking cover have often assumed the identity of a journalist. But as far as Dana Rohrabacher, a House Republican from California, is concerned, there virtually is no difference when it comes to Chinese reporters:

Of the hundreds of Chinese nationals sent to the United States every year, some may be real reporters, but many function as intelligence officers; they report on what's happening in the United States on issues of concern to Chinese leaders -- including the movements of Tibetan activists and Chinese dissidents -- and write secret cables accessible only to a select few.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the congressional body responsible for monitoring national security issues between the two countries, reported in 2009 that "China's official Xinhua state news agency also serves some of the functions of an intelligence agency, gathering information and producing classified reports for the Chinese leadership on both domestic and international events." Furthermore "the Ministry of State Security [A Chinese ministry roughly equivalent to the CIA and FBI] also makes extensive use of the news media covers, sending agents abroad as correspondents for the state news agency Xinhua and as reporters for newspapers such as the People's Daily and China Youth Daily."

I wouldn't presume to cross Congress' research on Xinhua's activities. But before we panic about a foreign media service infiltrating and reporting about goings-on in the United States, it's worth pointing out the strong precedent for this kind of behavior -- and by Western governments, to boot.

This isn't the first time a foreign news service has been used as part of a country's intelligence apparatus. One of the earliest examples, in fact, can be found in the BBC -- the same BBC that gave us Fawlty Towers, The Office, and Planet Earth.

In the years leading up to World War II, British officials determined that the newspaper and radio broadcasts of hostile states would help them anticipate their enemies' actions. So they assembled the British Broadcast Monitoring Service, or what would become the intelligence arm of the BBC. The BBCMS's main function was to deliver an intelligence product called the Digest of World Broadcasts, a report it filed to London throughout the war.

In the CIA-produced journal Studies in Intelligence, historian Kalev Leetaru writes that by war's end, "the BBC service was monitoring 1.25 million words per day in 30 languages." The BBCMS is still around; in fact, if you try to register with the CIA's own Open Source Center, you'll notice that the Monitoring Service still maintains a reciprocal relationship with the U.S. intelligence community:

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What Rohrabacher alleges Xinhua of doing might be a step beyond what the BBCMS does, in that Xinhua appears not to have a wall between its general reporting arm and its clandestine one. Still, the mere fact that journalistic outfits a) deliberately make information public that foreign governments can use to their advantage and b) that sometimes those same outfits collaborate with their countries' spy agencies is not something that should surprise us.

Update: On Twitter, Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin takes me to task. My response is here and here.