China killed CIA sources, hobbled US spying from 2010 to 2012: NYT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 CIA sources from 2010 to 2012, hobbling U.S. spying operations in a massive intelligence breach whose origin has not been identified, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

Investigators remain divided over whether there was a spy within the Central Intelligence Agency who betrayed the sources or whether the Chinese hacked the CIA's covert communications system, the newspaper reported, citing current and former U.S. officials.

The Chinese killed at least a dozen people providing information to the CIA from 2010 through 2012, dismantling a network that was years in the making, the newspaper reported.

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China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.
China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.
China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, China April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.
China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy soldiers stand on a decommissioned destroyer in an aircraft carrier theme park during a celebration event on China's Navy Day at Binhai New Area, Tianjin, China, April 23, 2017. Picture taken April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.
China's second aircraft carrier, first domestically built aircraft carrier, is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Li Gang/Xinhua ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
DALIAN, CHINA - APRIL 26: China launches its first domestically developed aircraft carrier at Dalian Port during a launch ceremony on April 26, 2017 in Dalian, Liaoning Province of China. General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission took part in the launch ceremony on Wednesday morning. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
DALIAN, CHINA - APRIL 26: A launching ceremony is held for China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier at Dalian Port on April 26, 2017 in Dalian, Liaoning Province of China. China launches its second aircraft carrier which is its first homemade aircraft carrier carrying J-15 fighter jets and other aircraft on Wednesday in Dalian. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
DALIAN, CHINA - APRIL 26: China launches its first domestically developed aircraft carrier at Dalian Port during a launch ceremony on April 26, 2017 in Dalian, Liaoning Province of China. General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission took part in the launch ceremony on Wednesday morning. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
DALIAN, CHINA - APRIL 26: A launching ceremony is held for China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier at Dalian Port on April 26, 2017 in Dalian, Liaoning Province of China. China launches its second aircraft carrier which is its first homemade aircraft carrier carrying J-15 fighter jets and other aircraft on Wednesday in Dalian. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
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One was shot and killed in front of a government building in China, three officials told the Times, saying that was designed as a message to others about working with Washington.

The breach was considered particularly damaging, with the number of assets lost rivaling those in the Soviet Union and Russia who perished after information passed to Moscow by spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, the report said. Ames was active as a spy in the 1980s and Hanssen from 1979 to 2001.

The CIA declined to comment when asked about the Times report on Saturday.

The Chinese activities began to emerge in 2010, when the American spy agency had been getting high quality information about the Chinese government from sources deep inside the bureaucracy, including Chinese upset by the Beijing government's corruption, four former officials told the Times.

The information began to dry up by the end of the year and the sources began disappearing in early 2011, the report said.

As more sources were killed the FBI and the CIA began a joint investigation of the breach, examining all operations run in Beijing and every employee of the U.S. Embassy there.

The investigation ultimately centered on a former CIA operative who worked in a division overseeing China, the newspaper said, but there was not enough evidence to arrest him.

Some investigators believed the Chinese had hacked the CIA's covert communications system.

Still others thought the breach was a result of careless spy work including traveling the same routes to the same meeting points or meeting sources at restaurants where Chinese had planted listening devices, the newspaper said.

By 2013, U.S. intelligence concluded China's ability to identify its agents had been curtailed, the newspaper said, and the CIA has been trying to rebuild its spy network there.

(Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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