CIA Chief Burns Forms China-Focused Group in Pivot Toward Asian Rival

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The spy agency has struggled to recruit spies in China; Burns cites ‘increasingly hostile Chinese government’

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“The new center will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat facing us in the 21st century, an increasingly hostile Chinese government,” Mr Burns said in a statement.

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The CIA chief also announced the establishment of another new center that will focus on disruptive new technologies, emerging threats such as climate change and global health that have not traditionally been a priority for US intelligence agencies.

The structural changes highlight how the CIA, whose No. 1 priority for the past 20 years was tracking terrorists and disrupting their conspiracies, is facing a changed global landscape. At the same time, terrorism remains a threat—many analysts fear a re-emergence from Afghanistan after the fall of the US-backed government there—as do Iran, North Korea and Russia.

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“We also face a challenging balancing act in the CIA between new and long-standing threats,” the senior agency official said.

The two mission centers and other initiatives Mr Burns announced on Thursday were the first major changes to the spy agency since taking office in March, and stemmed from reviews of the CIA’s operations that he launched this spring. did.

According to former intelligence officials, the agency has struggled in recent years to recruit and run agents inside China, even as the number of US citizens arrested for spying for Beijing has risen. .

On another important topic, US spy agencies were unable to pinpoint whether the virus that causes COVID-19 first infected humans through transmission from an animal or in Wuhan, China. There is a laboratory leak where the disease first emerged. US lawmakers and members of the Biden administration have said US intelligence agencies should focus more of their work on the pandemic and global health, traditionally low priority issues.

CIA officials declined to say how much additional resources and personnel would be devoted to gathering and analyzing intelligence about China, its leaders and their intentions. In December, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said US spy agencies had increased China-related spending by about 20% in the federal fiscal year ended September 30, 2021.

Mr Burns and other top intelligence officials argue that China presents a unique challenge to the US in its economic strength, technology, trade, diplomacy, defense and other areas.

The senior official said the China mission center is meant to indicate the “single priority” that China represents for the agency’s personnel. As with counter-terrorism in previous years, Mr. Burns will host a weekly meeting on China with the head of the center and other top officials.

“The CIA must adapt to the policy priorities of each new administration, as well as the evolving global landscape of national security challenges and opportunities. If there is any country that deserves its own mission center, it is China,” said the former CIA Director John Brennan said.

Mr. Brennan, who served under former President Barack Obama, established the mission-center concept as part of a broader 2015 reorganization of the CIA. The aim of the centers was to more tightly link the different disciplines of intelligence gathering and analysis.

The senior official said that while saying that North Korea and Iran are priorities, Mr. Burns nevertheless intended to eliminate the separate mission centers dedicated to those countries and link them back into dedicated regional units for East Asia and the Near East. Huh.

Elaborating on the change, the official said the challenge from both countries is best addressed in the regional context, where US cooperation with allies is critical.

In another planned change, Mr. Burns intends to dramatically accelerate the onboarding process for new CIA officers, which, due to lengthy security reviews, can take up to two years from initial interview to recruiting of a potential individual. could. “It’s too long now,” said the officer. The goal will be to shorten the time to the middle of six months without cutting corners on security.

The second new unit Mr. Burns announced, the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, will have a dual focus: gathering and analyzing intelligence on cross-border threats such as pandemics, and ensuring the CIA understands the impact of fast-paced technological innovation, including Including through access to the private sector.

write to Warren P. Strobel at [email protected]

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