Time to reinforce counterintelligence

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Time to reinforce counterintelligence

It has been reported that the U.S. National Security Agency tapped the phone calls of 35 foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When Merkel protested, U.S. President Barack Obama said the agency is not monitoring Merkel’s phone calls and will not do so in the future. However, he didn’t clarify the eavesdropping issue. I asked a foreign intelligence specialist whether Obama’s response was rude, but he said that it was only natural for a state leader to remain ambiguous regarding the existence and activity of a national security agency. He added that Obama must have been advised by foreign policy, security and intelligence experts before making such a diplomatic remark.

In fact, countries are reticent when it comes to intelligence agencies. Governments remain silent over seemingly trivial or obvious cases. A Korean intelligence expert said that they are taciturn because they know information can be fearful. For instance, on Dec. 30, 2009, Obama visited the CIA headquarters to attend funerals for seven CIA agents killed in Afghanistan. While the president acknowledged their accomplishments and cherished their sacrifice, he didn’t mention their identities or activities.

The Israeli government feigned ignorance when the faces of Mossad agents were caught on a surveillance camera in 2010 or when some agents were arrested after a failed assassination operation in Jordan in 1997. While a memorial tower for agents killed in action stands in the backyard of the National Intelligence Service headquarters, no information is known about them, except for Choi Duk-keun, a consul who was killed by a poisoned needle in Vladivostok, Russia, on Oct. 1, 1996, the only case that was reported on by the media.

We cannot expect Obama to clarify or apologize over all the activities of the intelligence agencies. Another specialist said that the latest case shows there is no friend or foe in the field of espionage, and that’s solid proof of the cold reality that even the foreign leader, who is supposed to be a friend of our president, is no exception. So it’s important to reinforce the counterintelligence activities to defend national interests by understanding the reality properly.

According to a specialist on the National Intelligence Act, Seoul is a paradise for foreigners, especially spies from allied or neutral states. There is no clear law to punish their espionage activities, such as wiretapping. Korean law states that only those who operated for the interest of enemy states are subject to punishment. That’s a makeshift regulation from the Cold War era targeting North Korea and other Communist states - before the term “globalization” was coined.

Intelligence sources say that having a legal foundation to punish spies helps the national interest by discouraging scouting activities and understanding and responding to their areas of interest. It is about time we actively defend our national interests through multi-dimensional espionage activities.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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