A year after Afghanistan, spy agencies turn to China


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In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, the CIA’s no. 2 The official made it clear that fighting al-Qaida and other extremist groups will remain a priority — but the agency’s money and resources will be shifted more to focus. On China.

A CIA drone strike that killed an al-Qaeda leader showed that fighting terrorism is hardly an afterthought. But that didn’t change the message the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, delivered at that meeting weeks ago: The U.S. will continue to go after terrorists, but the first priority is trying to better understand and counter 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 political, economic and military threats from China and Russia. There is a quiet pivot in the intelligence agencies, which is moving hundreds of officials, including some who previously worked in terrorism, to China-focused positions.

Last week made it clear that the US would have to deal with both at the same time. Days after Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in Kabul, China staged large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut ties with the US over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

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The US has long been alarmed by China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has sought to influence foreign elections, waged campaigns of cyber and corporate espionage, and detained millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts think Beijing will try to forcefully annex the self-governing democratic island of Taiwan in the coming years.

Intelligence officials say more insights are needed about China, including after the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be definitively identified. Beijing is 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 war plans and garner diplomatic support for Kyiv before the invasion.

President Joe Biden speaks from the Blue Room balcony of the White House, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Washington, as he announces that a U.S. airstrike has killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan. A year after ending the war in Afghanistan, Biden and top national security officials are talking less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threats posed by China and Russia.
(Jim Watson/Pool via AP, File)

Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach note that the US was able to track down and kill al-Zawahri thanks to its ability to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahri is living in Kabul under the apparent protection of the Taliban suggests a resurgence of militant groups that America is ill-equipped to deal with.

The shift in priorities is supported by many former intelligence officials and lawmakers from both parties, who say it is overkill. This includes people who have served in Afghanistan and other operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Rep. is a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Jason Crowe said he believed the US had over-focused on counter-terrorism over the past several years.

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Crowe, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said, “Russia and China are more of an existential threat. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy the American way of life … the way China has.”

CIA spokeswoman Tammy Thorp noted that terrorism “remains a real challenge.”

“While crises like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges like those posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, the CIA continues to aggressively track terrorist threats globally and work with partners to counter them,” said Thorpe.

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen testifies before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Iran sanctions Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  A CIA drone strike that killed an al-Qaeda leader showed that fighting terrorism is hardly an afterthought.  But that didn't change the message Deputy Director David Cohen delivered at that meeting weeks ago: The U.S. will continue to go after terrorists whose top priority is trying to better understand and counter Beijing.

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen testifies before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Iran sanctions, Tuesday, January 27, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. A CIA drone strike that killed an al-Qaeda leader showed that fighting terrorism is hardly an afterthought. But that didn’t change the message Deputy Director David Cohen delivered at that meeting weeks ago: The US will continue to go after terrorists, whose top priority is trying to better understand and counter Beijing.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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. Shifting resources toward China requires cuts elsewhere, including counterterrorism. Specific figures are not available because intelligence budgets are classified.

In particular, lawmakers want more information on 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 could disrupt how future wars are fought and economies are structured.

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As part of the shift, congressional committees are trying to better track how intelligence agencies spend their money in China, seeking more details about how specific programs contribute to that operation, a person familiar with the matter said.

“We’re late, but it’s good that we’re finally shifting our focus to that area,” 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.”

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The CIA announced last year that it would create two new “mission centers” — one in China, one on emerging technologies — to focus and improve intelligence gathering on those topics. The CIA is trying to hire more Chinese speakers and reduce wait times on security clearances 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.

People walk past a billboard welcoming US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on August 3, 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan.  Days after Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, China held large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut ties with the US.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

People walk past a billboard welcoming US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on August 3, 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan. Days after Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, China held large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut ties with the US. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
(AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

Intelligence officers are trained to adapt to new challenges, and officials note that many have moved more quickly into counterterrorism roles since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Advances from counterterrorism work — including better use of data and intelligence sources to build networks and identify targets — could also be useful in countering Russia and China, former officials said.

“It’s an analytics and targeting machine that’s phenomenal,” said Douglas Weiss, a former senior CIA official who was deputy chief of operations at the Counterterrorism Center.

The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, renamed the Counterterrorism Center in a 2015 reorganization, is a point of pride for many people who credit its work with keeping Americans safe from terrorism after September 11. CIA officers landed in Afghanistan on September 26, 2001. and was part of operations to dislodge the Taliban and find and kill al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

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And 13 years after the double agent tricked officers pursuing 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 war on terror. It also operated secret “black site” prisons to hold some misdemeanor terrorism suspects and used interrogation methods that amounted to torture, a Senate investigation found. Elite Afghan special operations units trained by the CIA were also accused of violating international law by killing civilians.

There has long been debate about whether counterterrorism has pulled intelligence agencies 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 Polimeropoulos is a retired CIA operations officer and former chief of staff in Afghanistan. He supports a greater focus on China and Russia but said there is “no reason to minimize what we need to do.”

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“This idea that all the CT work we’ve done is wrong somehow, that we have our eye on the ball — remember what everyone was going through on September 12,” he said.

Weiss said re-orienting 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 will take time to change.

“For decades, we’ve been doing counterterrorism,” Weiss said. “We must have a rational plan to make this transformation, which will not take long for our enemies to exploit the glacial process.”



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