I’ve written about counterintelligence (CI) before, but I realized today that some of my writing, and the writing of others, may be confused as to exactly what CI means.
The authoritative place to find an American definition for CI is the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center. I am more familiar with the old name of this organization, the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX).
The 2016 National Counterintelligence Strategy cites Executive Order 12333 (as amended) for its definition of CI:
Counterintelligence – Information gathered and activities conducted to identify, deceive,
exploit, disrupt, or protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted for or on behalf of foreign powers, organizations, or persons, or their agents, or international terrorist organizations or activities. (emphasis added)
The strict interpretation of this definition is countering foreign nation state intelligence activities, such as those conducted by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR RF), Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, or the military intelligence services of those countries and others.
In other words, counterintelligence is countering foreign intelligence. The focus is on the party doing the bad things, and less on what the bad thing is.
The definition, however, is loose enough to encompass others; “organizations,” “persons,” and “international terrorist organizations” are in scope, according to the definition. This is just about everyone, although criminals are explicitly not mentioned.
The definition is also slightly unbounded by moving beyond “espionage, or other intelligence activities,” to include “sabotage, or assassinations.” In those cases, the assumptions is that foreign intelligence agencies and their proxies are the parties likely to be conducting sabotage or assassinations. In the course of their CI work, paying attention to foreign intelligence agents, the CI team may encounter plans for activities beyond collection.
The bottom line for this post is a cautionary message. It’s not appropriate to call all intelligence activities “counterintelligence.” It’s more appropriate to call countering adversary intelligence activities counterintelligence.
You may use similar or the same approaches as counterintelligence agents when performing your cyber threat intelligence function. For example, you may recruit a source inside a carding forum, or you may plant your own source in a carding forum. This is similar to turning a foreign intelligence agent, or inserting your own agent in a foreign intelligence service. However, activities directing against a carding forum are not counterintelligence. Activities directing against a foreign intelligence service are counterintelligence.
The nature and target of your intelligence activities are what determine if it is counterintelligence, not necessarily the methods you use. Again, this is in keeping with the stricter definition, and not becoming a victim of scope creep.