A group of Asian men set off alarm bells in U.S. counterintelligence circles last week by showing up outside the entrance to a U.S. strategic missile base in Wyoming.
Between eight and 10 people suspected of being Chinese nationals drove up to the entrance outside F.E. Warren Air Force Base, one of three strategic nuclear missile bases in the United States.
According to defense officials and a base spokeswoman, the group asked to use the rest room at the base’s visitor control center. They then began asking questions about photos of Air Force command leaders posted on a “command board” at the entrance facility.
The suspicious visitors then asked to photograph display missiles near the entrance to the base, and were denied.
One security official said the suspicious incident on Sept. 3 appeared to be part of a Chinese intelligence collection operation or perhaps a training exercise for intelligence personnel. Another theory is that the group was part of the population of Asian guest workers residing in other parts of Wyoming or the west.
U.S. intelligence officials have said Chinese intelligence agencies conduct aggressive spying activities against U.S. military facilities and have been known to case the Pentagon’s strategic missile defense base at Fort Greeley, Alaska.
A former senior U.S. counterintelligence official said the problem of Chinese intelligence collection has been largely overlooked by the FBI, which is in charge of counterintelligence against foreign states.
“The Bureau is hopelessly outgunned [by Chinese intelligence] in terms of numbers,” the former official said. “They just don’t do much to counter them.”
The Soviet KGB during the Cold War was also caught setting up electronic eavesdropping posts in the Southwest United States near military bases, including the Army intelligence post at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. after crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.
“There is a long history of communist intelligence service doing wartime intelligence collection that has simply gone unrecognized and, for diplomatic or political reasons, denied by the FBI,” the official said.
“I have every reason to believe, based on that history, that the Chinese are doing the same thing and monitoring strategic facilities.”
Regarding Chinese signals intelligence collection against the U.S. military, one team of agents from the 3rd Department of the People’s Liberation Army, which conducts electronic spying, was detected spying on U.S. military operations in Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the former official said.