Foreign Spies Target Underwater Drone Fleet, Military Spooks Say

Report: Other than cyber espionage, most popular spying method? Ask for info.

October 27, 2011, 11:52 AM

Oct. 27, 2011 — -- When foreign spies set their sights on America's secrets, many times they're not looking underground for secret bunkers or in the sky for massive spy blimps, but under the sea at the nation's low-profile underwater drone fleet.

According to some of the military's top counterintelligence analysts, in recent years there has been a significant increase in both old school spying and cyber operations, especially by unnamed East Asian nations, directed at gaining classified information on America's autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in hopes of undercutting the U.S.'s "underseas battlespace dominance."

"The technology base of the United States is under constant attack," a new report by the Counterintelligence Directorate of the Pentagon's Defense Security Service says. "This pervasive and enduring threat is like the weather: ever-present, yet ever changing."

The maritime drones, which have been stalking the world's oceans for more than a decade for the U.S. Navy, are capable of a variety of missions including enemy craft and port surveillance, anti-mine operations and even "payload delivery", according to the Navy.

The DSS report is compiled annually based on incident reports by private U.S. contractors who say they've had suspicious contact with a foreign entity that expressed interest in classified technology. The report covers several popular targets for espionage -- from U.S. information systems to space technology -- but singled out the underwater drones this year as a "special focus area" because it has shown to be a "growing collection area".

The DSS predicts foreign production of AUVs to swiftly increase and, along with it, interest in stealing related U.S. technology.

READ: Defense Security Service Report on Targeting U.S. Technologies (PDF)

How They Spy: From Long-Term Plots and Cyber Ops to Just Asking

Regardless of the target, the DSS reported a "stunning increase" of 140 percent in "suspicious contact reports determined to be of intelligence value" from last year alone. As to how the foreign entities try to get the information on any target from contractors, the DSS report describes much less Mission Impossible-esque sneaking through air ducts and a lot more flat out asking for it.

The DSS said that by far the most popular way to gain access to classified data is for foreign agents to directly request it "under the guise of price quote or purchase request, marketing surveys, or other direct and indirect efforts." Often, it's foreign companies that request the information, but the DSS suspects the technology would quickly be turned over to the host government and "would probably find its way to military applications."

That's not to say that other nations are not playing a longer game, however. The DSS notes that some plots from all corners of the globe involve agents attempting to land a job in the target contractor's organization so they can eventually leak information first hand.

Click Here to Sign Up for Breaking News and Investigation Alerts From The Brian Ross Investigative Unit

There has also been a significant increase in aggressive cyber operations around the world, especially in the East Asia region. There, suspicious cyber activity made up more than 25 percent of all reported incidents in FY 2010, up from 11 percent in 2009.

"This region [East Asia] has a bold and aggressive agenda and conducts multifaceted, pervasive, and innovative collection efforts," the report says.

Though no individual countries are named in the DSS report, China has been suspected in several highly-publicized cyber attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies and was named by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) as exercising an "intolerable level" of cyber espionage on U.S. targets.

"I don't believe that there is a precedent in history for such a massive and sustained intelligence effort by a government agency to blatantly steal commercial data and intellectual property," Rogers said earlier this month. Chinese officials have repeatedly denied the accusations.

READ: China Still Spies the Old-Fashioned Way, Russia Says

The DSS said that since U.S. contractors will continue developing advanced technology for the U.S., they will continue to be the "primary target for foreign entities seeking to improve their country's abilities or to simply profit from pirating the technology."

"Entities that successfully acquire the technology will likely develop a competitive edge economically and militarily," the report concludes. "The pervasive threat to U.S. technology is likely to continue for the foreseeable future."

Return to The Blotter homepage.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events