Leading counterintelligence officials issued a memo to all of the CIA’s global stations saying that a concerning number of U.S. informants were being captured and executed., according to The New York Times. The CIA’s counterintelligence mission centre investigated dozens of incidents in the last few years that involved killings, arrests or compromises of foreign informants. In an unusual move, the message sent via a top-secret cable included the specific number of agents killed by other intelligence agencies, according to The New York Times. Top American counterintelligence officials — in an unusual top-secret cable — said that the CIA’s counterintelligence mission centre had looked at dozens of cases in the last several years involving foreign informants who had been killed, arrested or most likely compromised, reported The New York Times. The cable also noted the specific number of agents executed by rival intelligence agencies. Usually, these specific details are not shared in such cables. Highlighting the struggle of the CIA, the cable stressed that the agency is having issues as it works to recruit spies worldwide in difficult operating environments. Recently, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the CIA’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents, said The New York Times.

The cable also acknowledged that recruiting spies is a high-risk business. It also emphasised that in recent years, various issues have plagued the agency such as poor tradecraft, being too trusting of sources, underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security”, according to New York Times.

Various compromised informants have highlighted the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of CIA officers in order to discover their sources. The CIA has many ways to collect intelligence but networks of trusted human informants around the world remain the centrepiece of its efforts, the kind of intelligence that the agency is supposed to be the best in the world at collecting and analysing.

Former officials have said that the CIA case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions through recruiting new informants. In the last two decades, the CIA had been devoted to terrorist threats and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But now again a centrepiece of the CIA’s agenda has been to improve intelligence collection on adversarial powers, both great and small, particularly as policymakers demand more insight into China and Russia. The loss of informants, former officials said, is not a new problem. But the cable demonstrated the issue is more urgent than is publicly understood, according to New York Times.