The CIA’s No. 2 official made it clear in a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s counterterrorism center that fighting al-Qaida and other extremist groups would remain a priority — but that the agency’s money and resources would be increasingly shifted to focusing on China.
One year after the Afghan war ended, President Joe Biden and other top national security officials are talking less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic, and military threats posed by China and Russia. There has been a quiet pivot within intelligence agencies, with hundreds of officers being moved to China-focused positions, including some who previously worked on terrorism.
Counterterrorism officials emphasize that the fight is far from over. It was only a week ago that it was revealed that a CIA drone attack in Kabul killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. However, China conducted large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut off contact with the US in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. It emphasized the message delivered by CIA deputy director David Cohen at that meeting weeks ago: the agency’s top priority is to understand and counter Beijing.
The United States has long been concerned about China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has attempted to influence foreign elections, launched cyber and corporate espionage campaigns, and detained millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts believe Beijing will try to seize the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan by force in the coming years.
Intelligence officials have stated that they require more information on China, particularly after being unable to determine the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing has been accused of concealing information about the virus’s origins.
And the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted Russia’s significance as a target. Before the invasion, the US used declassified information to expose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans and rally diplomatic support for Kyiv.
Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach point out that the fact that the US was able to track and kill al-Zawahri demonstrates the country’s ability to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics argue that the fact that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul, seemingly under the protection of the Taliban, indicates a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-equipped to combat.
Many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties agree that the shift in priorities is long overdue. People who served in Afghanistan and other missions against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations are included.
Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, believes the United States has been overly focused on counterterrorism in recent years.
According to several people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters, Congress has pushed the CIA and other intelligence agencies to make China a top priority. Pushing resources toward China has necessitated cuts in other areas, including counterterrorism. Because intelligence budgets are classified, specific figures were unavailable.
Lawmakers are particularly interested in learning more about China’s progress in advanced technologies. China has committed trillions of dollars in investment in quantum science, artificial intelligence, and other technologies that are likely to disrupt how future wars and economies are fought. As part of the shift, congressional committees are attempting to better track how intelligence agencies spend their funding on China, requesting more information on how specific programs contribute to that mission, according to one person familiar with the matter.
The CIA announced last year that it would establish two new “mission centers,” one on China and one on emerging technologies, to centralize and improve intelligence collection on those topics. In order to hire new people faster, the CIA is also attempting to recruit more Chinese speakers and reduce wait times for security clearances.
Many officers within the agency are learning Chinese and moving into new roles focused on China, though not all of those jobs require language training, according to people familiar with the situation.
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 different sources of intelligence to build networks and identify targets — are also useful in countering Russia and China, former officers said.