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Industrial Espionage: the CIA's New Frontier : Intelligence: With the agency downsizing, a new line of spying might well provide employment to all those forced out into the cold.

July 18, 1993|Ross Thomas | Ross Thomas, a novelist, has written a screenplay about a private industrial espionage boutique that is scheduled to begin production in August. His most recent novel is "Voodoo, Ltd" (Mysterious Press)

When R. James Woolsey, the new director of Central Intelligence, told a congressional hearing in March, "Yes, we have slain the dragon. But we live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes," I wanted to telephone the last living ex-CIA spook I knew to ask who the new snakes are and why Woolsey finds them so bewildering.

But I didn't call, and now I wish I had, because a few weeks later I received a letter from the brother of my friend the spook, Harry Barbouze, which is not his name, saying Harry had died alone in a Lafayette, La., motel room, presumably of the drink.

The letter was not so much to inform me of Harry's death as to inquire, rather diffidently, if the $600 I had dispatched by Federal Express several years ago to Harry at that same motel was a loan or a gift? If it had been a loan, the brother would make sure Harry's estate ( estate? ) repaid it.

I assured him it had been a gift and marveled to myself that there are still brothers who go around cleaning up the messes left by their feckless siblings. But then the Barbouzes were originally Nebraska lads and perhaps that's the way things are still done in the heartland.

Harry had been one of the Central Intelligence Agency's contract hires, which meant he had no Civil Service protection or pension. He was dumped after 20 or so years of flitting about the world as an agency labor specialist, fomenting strikes, I suspect, or if need be, breaking them. Harry was a guy who could go either way.

If he were still with the agency today, I know Harry would be keen to try his hand at what some claim will be the CIA's most promising new venture in years: industrial espionage. I'm almost sure that Harry, a true professional, would as soon have risked his life for IBM as he would have for flag and country--providing the pay was the same.

If the CIA does plunge into the industrial espionage business, the first question will be: How will it divvy up the product? If the agency manages to steal an automotive breakthrough from Honda, will it go to Chrysler, General Motors or Ford? Or will it be secretly auctioned off--thus defraying some of the cost of the U.S. intelligence effort that's guessed to be about $30 billion a year?

The new CIA director has claimed that economic espionage is "the hottest current topic in intelligence." It also may be the most bewildering of those poisonous snakes he's been fretting about.

For example, there's the problem of what the CIA would do if one of its economic-industrial spies were caught. Would it go the "Mission Impossible" route and deny all knowledge? Or would it already have jailed a variety of foreign industrial spies--say, three Japanese, four Frenchmen, a Korean or two and maybe the lone Swede--to trade back and forth as it did during the Cold War?

The United States, so far, has been one of the few industrialized countries that has refrained--officially anyway--from engaging in the theft of industrial secrets. The Japanese, on the other hand, admit they vacuum up any technological information available, presumably tons of it, which they then translate and analyze for possible use. That's their overt side. The covert side is exemplified by the Hitachi and Mitsubishi employees who pleaded guilty in 1982 to stealing IBM secrets.

The French apparently are the most blatant of the industrial-economic ferrets. Their former intelligence chief, Pierre Marion, justified his country's penchant for industrial spying when he said recently: "In the economic competition, in the technological competition, we are competitors. We are not allied."

Robert M. Gates, the former CIA chief, once listed 20 nations that regularly spy out the U.S. industrial land. France and Japan were near the top of the list, followed by South Korea, China, Israel, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain. Some say the British were near the bottom because they seldom get caught.

The prevention of industrial-economic espionage lies within the purview of the FBI, not the CIA. The bureau is said to be reorganizing its counterintelligence division so it can cover virtually all foreign spy agencies that might try to pilfer critical industrial information--even when it's not classified. In April, according to one report, the FBI's industrial espionage caseload leaped from 10 to 500 in only nine months.

But many industrial firms aren't waiting around for the FBI to protect their secrets. Instead, they are installing their own counterintelligence measures. Caterpiller Inc., for example, has put all its electronically transmitted material into code. TRW Inc., is producing a gadget that even encodes fax messages.

In addition to such basic measures as encoding electronic messages, there are any number of private firms, old and new, that provide and supervise counterintelligence measures for companies wary of having their secrets stolen.

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