WASHINGTON (AP) — In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s counterterrorism center, the CIA’s No. 2 official made it clear that fighting al Qaeda and other extremist groups will remain a priority — but that money and the agency’s resources will increasingly be directed to focusing on China.
The CIA drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader showed that the fight against terrorism is not an afterthought at all. But it didn’t change the message that the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, gave at that meeting weeks earlier: While the U.S. will continue to pursue terrorists, the top priority is to try to better understand and confront Beijing.
A year after ending the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and top national security officials are talking less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threats posed by China as well as Russia. There is a quiet turnaround in the intelligence services, which is moving hundreds of officers to China-focused posts, including some who previously worked on terrorism.
The last week makes it clear that the US must deal with both at the same time. Days after the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahri in Kabul, China held large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut ties with the US over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
The US has long been concerned by China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has tried to influence foreign electionsorganized cyber espionage and corporate espionage campaignsand held millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts also believe that Beijing will try in the coming years to take over the self-governing democratic island of Taiwan by force.
Intelligence officials have said they need more information on China, including the inability 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 underscored Russia’s importance as a target. The US used declassified information to reveal Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pre-invasion war plans and gathering of diplomatic support in Kyiv.
Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach note that the US was able to track down and kill al-Zawahri as evidence of its ability to target threats to Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul, under the apparent protection of the Taliban, suggests there is a resurgence of extremist groups which America is ill-equipped to deal with.
The shift in priorities is supported by many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties who say it is overdue. This includes people who served in Afghanistan and other missions against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Representative Jason Crowe, 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 much bigger existential threat is Russia and China,” said Crowe, 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.”
“Even as crises like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges like that posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, the CIA will continue to aggressively monitor terrorist threats worldwide and work with partners to address them. Thorp said.
Congress has pushed 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. The push of resources to China necessitated cuts elsewhere, including counterterrorism. Specific figures were not available because intelligence budgets are classified.
In particular, lawmakers want more information about China’s growth in advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has poured trillions of dollars into investments 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 change, congressional committees are trying to better track how the intelligence agencies spend their funding in China, seeking more detail on how specific programs contribute 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 area,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “That means people, resources, military means and 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 reduce security clearance wait times to hire new people faster.
Within the agency, many officers are learning Chinese and moving into new China-focused roles, though not all of those positions require language training, people familiar with the matter said.
Officials note that intelligence officers are trained to adapt to new challenges and that many were moved more quickly into counterterrorism roles after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Advances from counterterrorism work — including better use of data and disparate intelligence sources 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 people 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 oust the Taliban and find and kill al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
And 13 years after a double agent fooled officers chased al-Zawahri and blew himself up, killing seven CIA operatives, the CIA killed him in a strike with no civilian casualties reported.
The CIA was also involved in some of the darkest moments of the fight against terrorism. It operated secret “black site” prisons. to detain terror suspects, some wrongly, and a Senate investigation found that they were used interrogation methods that amounted to torture. Elite Afghan special operations units trained by the CIA were also blamed killing civilians and violating international law.
There has long been a debate about whether counterterrorism has drawn intelligence too far from traditional espionage, and whether some of the CIA’s work in targeting terrorists should be done by special forces under the military.
Mark Polymeropoulos is a retired CIA operations officer and former base commander in Afghanistan. He said he supports a greater focus on China and Russia, but added, “There’s no reason to reduce what we’ve had to do.”
“This idea that somehow all the CT work that we did, somehow it was wrong, that we took our eye off the ball — just remember on September 12 what everybody was feeling,” he said.
Reorienting organizations toward a greater focus on China and Russia will ultimately take years and require both patience and recognition that organizational culture will take time to change, Wise said.
“For decades, we’ve been doing counterterrorism,” Wise said. “We must have a rational plan to make this adjustment, which does not take so long that our enemies can exploit a glacial process.”