According to a Biden administration official, a Chinese spy base or facilities in Cuba that could intercept electronic signals from nearby US military and commercial buildings have been up and running since before 2019, when they were upgraded.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said the spy base was a problem the Biden administration inherited from former President Donald J. Trump. After Mr. Biden took office, his administration was briefed on the base in Cuba and plans China was considering to build similar facilities around the world, the official said.
The existence of an agreement to build a Chinese spy facility in Cuba, first reported Thursday by The Wall Street Journal and also reported by The New York Times and other outlets, prompted an energetic response from Capitol Hill. In a joint statement, Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat of Virginia and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the panel’s top Republican, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, said they were “deeply disturbed by reports that Havana and Beijing they are working together to target the United States and our people.”
John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, denied the reports at the time, saying they were “not accurate”. He added that “we have had real concerns about China’s relationship with Cuba, and we have been concerned since day one of the administration about China’s activities in our hemisphere and around the world.”
But a US official familiar with the intelligence cited in Thursday’s reports insisted that China and Cuba had reached an agreement to improve existing spy capabilities.
Carlos F. de Cossio, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, tweeted on Saturday that the latest reports of spy facilities were “defamatory speculation.”
Some of the Biden administration’s critics in Congress questioned the reasons for the administration’s response.
“Why has the Biden administration previously denied these reports of a CCP spy base in Cuba? Why did they downplay the CCP’s ‘stupid’ spy balloon?” Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee looking into strategic competition with China, said in a statement Saturday, referring to the Communist Party of China with his initials.
The Biden administration has been working to thwart China’s continued efforts to gain a foothold in the region and elsewhere, an administration official said, mainly by engaging diplomatically with nations China was pursuing as potential hosts for such bases. The official added that the administration had slowed down China’s plans but declined to provide details.
While Beijing’s global efforts to build military bases and listening outposts have been documented before, the reports have detailed the extent to which China is moving its intelligence-gathering operations ever closer to the United States. The coast of Cuba is less than 100 miles from the nearest part of Florida, a distance close enough to improve China’s technological ability to conduct intelligence signals, monitoring electronic communications across the southeastern United States, which is home to several military bases.
China and the United States regularly spy on each other’s activities, and Cuba’s proximity has long made it a strategically valuable foothold for US adversaries, perhaps most famously during the Cold War, when the Union Soviet attempted to stockpile nuclear missiles on the island nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, said on Friday in response to the news, “The United States is the global hacking champion and surveillance superpower.”
The reports also emerged at an awkward time for the Biden administration, which has been trying to normalize relations with China after a long period of heightened tensions. Last year, several diplomatic, military and climate engagements between the two countries were frozen after spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan over objections from Beijing, which considers the autonomous island part of her territory.
High-level meetings, including an official trip by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, were canceled again earlier this year after a Chinese spy balloon was seen crossing the United States by people on the ground and tracked hovering near sensitive military sites.
Mr. Blinken is now scheduled to travel to Beijing for meetings starting June 18, and it’s unclear whether revelations of a Chinese spy facility so close to US soil could complicate those plans. Other issues hover over the trip, including growing calls that China release Yuyu Dong, a prominent journalist detained since February last year and awaiting trial on spying charges that his family believes are false. Mr. Dong, a former Nieman fellow at Harvard, has transparently met American and Japanese diplomats and journalists in Beijing for years.