WASHINGTON (AP) — At a recent behind-closed-doors meeting with heads of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, CIA Official No. 2 made it clear that the fight against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups would remain a priority — but that the agency’s money and resources would be increasingly shifted to China.
A year after the end of the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and senior national security officials are talking less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threat posed by China and Russia. There was a quiet turn within the intelligence services, moving hundreds of officials to China-focused positions, including some who had previously worked in the terrorism field.
Intelligence officials stress that the fight against terrorism is rarely ignored. Just a week ago, a CIA drone attack was uncovered Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawari killed in Kabul. But days later, China held large-scale military drills and threatened to cut ties with the US over the visit of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosis to Taiwan. It underscored the message conveyed by CIA Deputy Director David Cohen at that meeting weeks ago: The agency’s top priority is to try to understand Beijing and do something to counter it.
The US has long been concerned about China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China tried to influence elections abroadassembled Cyber and economic espionage campaignsand Millions of members of the Uyghur minority held in camps. Some experts also believe Beijing will do so in the coming years trying to conquer the self-governing democratic island of Taiwan forcibly.
That’s what intelligence officials said they need more insights into China, even after the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic could not be clearly determined. Beijing has been accused withhold information about the origin of the virus.
And the war in Ukraine has underscored the importance of Russia as a target. The USA used Shared Information to disclose it Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans before the invasion and show of diplomatic support for Kyiv.
Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach note that the fact that the US was able to track down and kill al-Zawari is a testament to its ability to combat foreign threats in Afghanistan. Critics say the fact that al-Zawari lived in Kabul, under apparent Taliban protection, suggests that there is a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-armed against it.
The shift in priorities has the backing of many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties, who say it’s overdue. This includes people who served in Afghanistan and other missions against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he believes the US has focused too much on counterterrorism in recent years.
“A far greater existential threat is Russia and China,” said Crow, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy the American way of life… like China can.”
CIA spokeswoman Tammy Thorp noted that terrorism “remains a very real challenge.”
“While crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges like the People’s Republic of China require our attention, the CIA will continue to aggressively pursue terrorist threats around the world and work with partners to counter them,” Thorp said.
Congress has urged the CIA and other intelligence agencies to make China a top priority, according to several people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Pushing resources to China has required cuts elsewhere, including in counterterrorism. Concrete figures were not available because intelligence budgets are secret.
In particular, lawmakers want more information on China’s development of advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has pledged trillions of dollars in investment in quantum science, artificial intelligence and other technologies that are likely to disrupt the way future wars are fought and economies are structured.
As part of the shift, congressional committees are trying to better track how intelligence agencies are spending their funds on China and are seeking more details on how specific programs are contributing to that mission, a person familiar with the matter said.
“We’re late, but it’s good that we’re finally shifting our focus to this region,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “That means in people, in resources, in military assets and in diplomacy.”
The CIA announced last year to make it two new “mission centers” – one on China, one on new technologies – to centralize and improve the collection of information on these issues. The CIA is also trying to recruit more Chinese speakers and reduce security clearance wait times in order to hire new people faster.
Within the agency, many officials are learning Chinese and moving into new roles focused on China, although not all of those jobs require language training, people familiar with the matter said.
Officials note that intelligence officers are being trained to adapt to new challenges, and many were more rapidly transitioned to counter-terrorism roles following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Advances in counterterrorism — including making better use of data and various sources of information to build networks and identify targets — are also useful in countering Russia and China, former officers said.
“It’s the analysis and targeting machine that has become extraordinary,” said Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA officer who was deputy chief of operations at the Counterterrorism Center.
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, renamed the Counterterrorism Mission Center in a 2015 reorganization, remains a point of pride for many who credit its work with protecting Americans from terrorism after 9/11 . CIA officers landed in Afghanistan on September 26, 2001. and were part of operations to drive out the Taliban and find and kill leaders of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden.
And 13 years after a Double agent tricked officials al-Zawari and blew himself up killing seven agency employees, the CIA killed him in a strike with no reported civilian casualties.
The CIA was also involved in some of the darkest moments of the fight against terrorism. It worked secret “Black Site” prisons arresting terror suspects, some wrongly, and was established by a Senate investigation to have used Interrogation methods that amounted to torture. Elite Afghan Special Forces trained by the CIA were also charged Killing civilians and violating international law.
There has long been a debate as to whether counterterrorism has moved the intelligence community too far from traditional espionage, and whether some of the CIA’s counter-terrorist work should instead be done by military special forces.
Marc Polymeropoulos is a retired CIA operations officer and former base chief in Afghanistan. He said he supports a greater focus on China and Russia, but added: “There’s no reason to scale back what we’ve had to do.”
“This idea that somehow all the CT work that we did was kind of wrong, that we took our eye off the ball — just think of how everyone felt on September 12,” he said.
Rebalancing the agencies to have a greater focus on China and Russia will ultimately take years and will require both patience and the recognition that the agency’s culture will take time to change, Wise said.
“We’ve been fighting terrorism for decades,” Wise said. “We must have a rational plan to make this adjustment that doesn’t take long enough for our enemies to exploit a glacial process.”
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