WASHINGTON (AP) — In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s counter-terrorism center, the No. 2 CIA official made it clear that fighting al-Qaeda and other extremist groups would remain a priority — but that the agency’s money and resources are increasingly being shifted towards its focus on China.
The CIA Drone Attack That Killed Al-Qaeda Leader showed that counterterrorism is hardly an afterthought. But it didn’t change the message that the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, brought to that meeting weeks earlier: As the US continues to go after terrorists, the top priority is to better understand and counter Beijing.
A year after the war in Afghanistan ended, President Joe Biden and top national security officials are talking less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threats from both China and Russia. There has been a silent linchpin within intelligence agencies, moving hundreds of officers to China-focused positions, including some who previously worked on terrorism.
The past week has made it clear that the US is dealing with both at once. Days after Ayman al-Zawahri was assassinated in Kabul, China staged large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut ties with the US over President Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
The US has long been alarmed by China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has tried to influence foreign electionslaunched cyber and corporate espionage campaignsand held millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts also think Beijing will try to conquer the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan in the coming years with violence.
Intelligence officials have said they need more insight into China, even after we were unable to definitively determine the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing has been accused of withholding information about the origin of the virus.
And the war in Ukraine has underlined the importance of Russia as a target. The US used declassified information to expose Gathering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans before the invasion and diplomatic support for Kiev.
Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach note that the US was able to track down and kill al-Zawahri. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahri lived in Kabul, under the apparent protection of the Taliban, suggests there is a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-equipped to counter it.
The shift in priorities is supported by many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both sides who say it is too late. That includes people who have served in Afghanistan and other missions against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Representative Jason Crow, a former military officer who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he felt the US has been overly focused on counter-terrorism in recent years.
“A much bigger 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…as China can.”
CIA spokesman Tammy Thorp noted that terrorism “remains a very real challenge”.
“Even as crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges like the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, the CIA will continue to aggressively monitor terrorist threats worldwide 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 case who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues. Pushing resources to China will require spending cuts elsewhere, including in the area of counter-terrorism. Specific figures were not available because intelligence budgets are classified.
In particular, legislators want more information about China’s development in advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has invested trillions of dollars 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 monitor how intelligence agencies spend their money on China, seeking more details about how specific programs contribute to that mission, said a person familiar with the matter.
“We’re late, but it’s good that we’re finally shifting our focus to that region,” said Representative Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “That means in people, in means, in military means and in diplomacy.”
The CIA announced last year that it would create two new “mission centers” – one on China, one on emerging technologies – to centralize and improve intelligence gathering on these issues. The CIA is also trying to recruit more Chinese speakers and shorten security clearance wait times to hire new people more quickly.
Within the agency, many officers are learning Chinese and taking on new roles focused on China, although not all of those jobs require language training, people familiar with the case said.
Officials note that intelligence officers have been trained to adapt to new challenges and that many were more quickly placed in a counter-terrorism role after the September 11, 2001 attacks. and targets — are also helpful in fighting Russia and China, former officers said.
“It’s the analytics and targeting machine that has become extraordinary,” said Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA officer who was deputy chief of operations at the counter-terrorism center.
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which was renamed the Counterterrorism Mission Center during a reorganization in 2015, remains a point of pride for many who appreciate its work protecting Americans from terrorism after 9/11. CIA officers landed in Afghanistan on September 26, 2001, and were part of operations to oust the Taliban and locate and kill al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
And 13 years after a double agent cheated on cops who pursued al-Zawahri 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. The managed secret “black site” prisons to detain terrorism suspects, some incorrectly, and was used by a Senate investigation to interrogation methods that amounted to torture. Elite Afghan special operations units trained by the CIA were also charged of killing civilians and violating international law.
There has long been a debate about whether counterterrorism has moved intelligence agencies too far from traditional espionage and whether some of the CIA’s job in attacking terrorists should instead be done by special forces under the military.
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 is no reason to cut back on what we had to do.”
“This idea that somehow all the CT work that we were doing was somehow wrong, that we were keeping our eye on things — just remember on September 12 what everyone was feeling,” he said.
Reorienting the agencies toward a greater focus on China and Russia will ultimately take years and will require both patience and recognition that the agency’s culture needs time to change, Wise said.
“We’ve been fighting terrorism for decades,” Wise said. “We need to have a rational plan to make this adjustment that won’t take long enough for our enemies to exploit a glacial process.”