CIA Weighs Creating Special China Unit in Bid to Out-Spy Beijing
The proposal, part of a broader review of the agency’s China capabilities by CIA Director William Burns, would elevate the focus on China within the agency, where China has long been part of a broader “Mission Center for East Asia and Pacific.”
Mission centers are stand-alone entities that utilize resources from across the CIA in line with agency priorities. In the intelligence bureaucracy, a separate China center would make it easier to secure headcount, funding and high-level attention for China-related activities, according to three current and former officials who spoke about the internal deliberations on condition of anonymity.
Existing mission centers include those for counterintelligence, counterterrorism and the Near East.
“As Director Burns has said, China is one of his priorities, and CIA is in the process of determining how best to position ourselves to reflect the significance of this priority,” the CIA said in a statement.
One former CIA officer, who asked not to be identified discussing his former employer, said that many in the agency have long seen a need to create a separate China center. But at least until now, nobody was willing to pull the trigger to make it happen, the person said.
Although the CIA is intended to provide independent intelligence assessments to presidents, the agency adjusts to reflect the priorities set in each administration.
In 2017, during the the Trump administration, the CIA established a new Korea Mission Center aimed at meeting the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea. At the time, the agency said the center would help it to “more purposefully integrate and direct CIA efforts.”
The China proposal reflects the priority Burns laid out during his Senate confirmation hearing in February. The veteran diplomat called China’s “adversarial, predatory leadership” the biggest threat to the U.S., saying Beijing’s goal is to “replace the United States as the world’s most powerful and influential nation.”
“For CIA, that will mean intensified focus and urgency -- continually strengthening its already impressive cadre of China specialists, expanding its language skills, aligning personnel and resource allocation for the long haul,” Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The agency’s broader China review is also considering whether to deploy China specialists in locations around the world, following the approach used to counter Soviet influence in the Cold War, Burns said in an interview with NPR last month. He also said the agency was looking into how to deal with the “ubiquitous technical surveillance” and other “very advanced capabilities on the part of the Chinese intelligence service,” which make it more difficult to conduct espionage overseas.
The review comes after senior officials raised concerns over the scale and ambition of Chinese spying in the U.S. FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year that Chinese tactics, from cyber espionage to threats against Chinese nationals living in the U.S., created a situation in which “Americans find themselves held over a barrel by the Chinese Communist Party.”
The CIA and other American intelligence agencies have faced questions about their collection capabilities in China. In 2017, the New York Times reported that the Chinese government had systematically dismantled CIA spying operations inside China starting in 2010. From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, the Chinese killed at least a dozen CIA sources, the Times reported.
A House Intelligence Committee report released in September 2020 concluded that U.S. spy agencies were failing to meet the multifaceted challenges posed by China and were overly focused on traditional targets such as terrorism or conventional military threats.
More recently, the intelligence community has also been under pressure to assess whether the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of a lab leak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. “The intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially,” Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, said in April.
A House Intelligence Committee official declined to comment on the possible establishment of the mission center but said the committee was pleased that Burns had initiated a review of how the CIA is oriented toward China and looked forward to the results.