The Buzz

America's Next South China Sea Crisis: Compromised Surveillance?

The effectiveness of the US’ counterintelligence capabilities has been brought into question in recent weeks, after it emerged during a pre-trial hearing on April 8 that a US Navy flight officer had been charged with espionage over allegations that he passed secret information to Taiwan and possibly China. One of the most troubling aspects of the charge is that the officer may have compromised key US maritime surveillance assets and activities in the South China Sea.

According to a heavily redacted Navy charge sheet, Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin, a US citizen born in Taiwan, is accused of two counts of espionage, three counts of attempted espionage, three counts of making false official statements and five counts of communicating defense information "to a person not entitled to receive said information." New information released last week revealed the evidence against Lin was at least partially the result of a government sting involving an FBI informant, whom it met with on five occasions. He has been held in pre-trial confinement in Virginia for the past eight months, after he was arrested attempting to board a plane from Hawaii to mainland China.

Taiwan, a key strategic ally to the US, has denied any involvement in the matter, which the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service are jointly pursuing as a "national security case." The incident, like many others made public by Snowden, reinforces the age old intelligence adage "there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service, just an intelligence service of a friendly nation."

Given Lin’s military career and knowledge of sensitive US intelligence collection methods, US authorities have plenty of reasons to be worried. Lin served on the staff of an assistant secretary of the Navy for financial management and comptroller, where he likely had access to highly classified strategic weapons planning, before being assigned in 2014 to the Special Projects Patrol Squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay as a flight officer. Lin’s experience within the patrol squadron is a serious security concern for the US. As part of the squadron, Lin had experience managing the collection of electronic signals from the EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft, whose missions include anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare mining, reconnaissance and surveillance.

The Aries has undergone significant upgrades in recent years and now delivers ‘near real-time’ signals intelligence and full motion video, allowing the Navy to pinpoint threats and eavesdrop on foreign militaries. Additionally, Lin may have had access to the P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft. In the current military environment, any intelligence concerning how the US conducts signal operations could be highly valuable to foreign governments, presenting them with the opportunity to counter US surveillance.

The implications of this case are far-reaching, most significantly in the South China Sea where tensions between the US and China continue to intensify over the US’ military surveillance operations. Currently, both the P-8A and the EP-3E play pivotal roles in tracking China’s naval activities in the region, and as such, determining each plane’s exact capabilities and vulnerabilities is of vital importance to Beijing.