Havana, Cuba.

Longtime CIA officer and Harvard Senior Fellow Paul Kolbe weighs in on the news that China maintains an intelligence center in Cuba.

Via AP

Nation & World

Chinese spies in Cuba? The problem runs deeper than that.

6 min read

As Blinken visits Beijing, cyber infiltration of U.S. far more serious threat than newly revealed intelligence collection center, 25-year CIA officer says

In early June, a White House spokesman confirmed reports that a Cuba-based Chinese signals intelligence collection center has been targeting the U.S. since 2019. The news came just months after a Chinese surveillance balloon stirred tensions between the two nations, and shortly before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken departed for a long-delayed trip to Beijing.

The revelation that China maintains an intelligence center 100 miles from Florida, the site of many key U.S. military command centers, seemed to startle Washington lawmakers, prompting a rare joint statement from the top Democratic and Republican heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said they were “deeply disturbed” by China and Cuba’s cooperation.

The Gazette spoke with 25-year CIA officer Paul Kolbe, whose career with the agency included leadership positions in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, and Central Europe, about China’s spying program. A former director of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School, he is now a senior fellow there. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Paul Kolbe

GAZETTE: Given China’s intelligence goals and Cuba’s strategic value for U.S. adversaries since the Cold War, were you surprised by the news?

KOLBE: The only surprise is that some lawmakers and others are acting with great shock that there’s gambling in this establishment. It’s certainly possible that they were briefed and didn’t remember or weren’t paying attention. Anyone who’s followed intelligence history will recall that the Soviets had a listening station in Lourdes, Cuba, for almost five decades. So it’s not surprising given the long-standing relationship between China and Cuba that China would also be seeking to find another platform on which to conduct intelligence operations against the U.S.

China’s interest in a Cuban intelligence platform reflects two trends. One is that across a spectrum of intelligence collection operations, China’s activity is expanding greatly. Whether it’s cyber, human-source operations, signals-collection operations, open-source collection operations, the opening of so-called “police stations” to harass and intimidate Chinese — you have to look at Cuba as just one small data point in a vast apparatus of Chinese intelligence activities directed against the U.S.

Second, Cuba reflects Chinese geopolitical goals of expansion and assiduous cultivation of governments in Latin America, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, the Caribbean. This includes building support for Chinese economic and political ambitions and to gain access to critical resources, in particular, rare materials that are critical to the energy transition — lithium, cobalt, etc. It’s exactly parallel to what they’re doing in Africa, but closer to shore and starts to really infringe on U.S. core interests.

Paul Kolbe.

“A listening station 100 miles away from the Florida coast is, I would argue, not necessarily more dangerous than a Chinese embassy in the middle of Washington, which is certainly collecting signals intelligence, or the amount of Chinese intrusion into U.S. cyber networks.”

Harvard file photo

GAZETTE: What’s driving this expansion?

KOLBE: Chinese intelligence activities are designed to support the overall goals of the Chinese Communist Party. They’re looking to defend and expand Chinese security interests, whether military, diplomatic, or economic; they’re looking to support Chinese economic growth and expansion through the theft of intellectual property, through the co-opting of universities and companies to steal what they can, and to exploit America’s open and collaborative corporate and economic and academic structures to their own benefit. There’s a vast transfer of intellectual wealth that’s taking place.

GAZETTE: Florida is home to critical U.S. military command centers and bases. It’s also becoming a major tech and financial services hub. If the collection center in Cuba is operational, doesn’t it pose a national security risk?

KOLBE: It’s a concern. However, far more important, and far more dangerous, are Chinese cyber operations directed against the U.S. government and U.S. companies and against academia. These stand to gain more, not only from their covert collection, but also in terms of hoovering up data that’s either publicly available or commercially available — vast stores of data that are going to China to feed their work on artificial intelligence as they seek to gain the digital high ground. China wants to build digital infrastructure — 5G networks, router networks, undersea cables, satellite networks — to gain economic and military competitive advantage.

GAZETTE: Spy balloons and eavesdropping stations seem pretty old-school intelligence-gathering techniques. Why would China rely on these things when they have more sophisticated tools in their toolbox?

KOLBE: These are part of a kitchen-sink approach to intelligence. China will use everything it can. Balloons and listening stations are not the most sophisticated intelligence collection methodologies that they’ll be using. More important are Chinese cyber operations — which are of high quality and of massive scale — directed against U.S. institutions and individuals and which dwarf the old-school technologies you’re talking about. Different intelligence agencies in China, both regional and institutional, are competing against each other, are well-resourced, and are working with clear purpose.

GAZETTE: Is it likely that the U.S. has taken any action in response to China’s electronic collection center in Cuba?

KOLBE: The actions that the U.S. can take are relatively small. You can take defensive actions to try to protect your communications, and that’s always taking place. But a listening station 100 miles away from the Florida coast is, I would argue, not necessarily more dangerous than a Chinese embassy in the middle of Washington, which is certainly collecting signals intelligence, or the amount of Chinese intrusion into U.S. cyber networks. We’ve got bigger issues to deal with.

GAZETTE: What tools or options would be available if the U.S. wanted to neutralize the usefulness of this or any other listening post for China?

KOLBE: There’s no technological silver bullet or quick fix on any of this. Most important in countering Chinese espionage efforts are, first, strong education campaigns for companies, government agencies, and universities to be aware of the threat and to take appropriate measures to protect themselves, whether it’s on focusing on insider threats or making sure that your cyber networks are secure. The second is work by law enforcement — activities conducted by the FBI and intelligence community — to uncover espionage operations and unmask the agents who are operating here and arrest those who are cooperating with those agents. The U.S. must create a hostile environment for espionage operations against its interests.