One year after Afghanistan, spy agencies pivot toward China

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, the CIA’s No. 2 official made clear that fighting al-Qaida and other extremist groups will remain a priority — but that the agency’s money and resources will increasingly shift to a focus on China.

Al-Qaeda leader killed in CIA drone strike It showed that the fight against terrorism is not an afterthought. But the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, didn’t change the message he delivered at that meeting a few weeks ago: The U.S. will continue to pursue terrorists, but the top priority is trying to better understand and counter Beijing.

A year after the end of the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and top national security officials talk less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threats posed by China as well as Russia. There has been a quiet pivot among intelligence agencies, moving hundreds of officers to China-focused positions, including some who previously worked on terrorism.

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

The US has long been wary of China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has tried to influence foreign electionsMounted campaigns of cyber and corporate espionageand detained millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts also believe that Beijing will try to annex the self-governing democratic island of Taiwan in the coming years by force

Intelligence officials say they need more insight into China, after being unable to definitively determine the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing is accused of withholding information About the origin of viruses.

And the war in Ukraine has underscored Russia’s importance as a target. US used declassified information to reveal Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pre-invasion war plans 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, a testament to Afghanistan’s ability to target foreign threats. Critics say al-Zawahri has been living in Kabul under the apparent protection of the Taliban, suggesting a resurgence of militant groups there. America is ill-equipped to deal with it.

The shift in priorities is supported by several former intelligence officials and lawmakers from both parties who say it is overdue. That includes people who served in Afghanistan and in other campaigns against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Rep. A former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Jason Crowe said that over the past several years, the United States has focused more on the fight against terrorism.

“Russia and China are the biggest existential threat,” said Crowe, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy America’s way of life … like China can.”

CIA spokeswoman Tammy Thorpe noted that terrorism is a very real challenge.

“Even as crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the strategic challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China draw our attention, the CIA will continue to aggressively track terrorist threats globally and work with partners to counter them,” Thorpe said.

Congress has pressured 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. Pushing resources toward China would require cuts elsewhere, including counterterrorism. Specific figures were unavailable because the intelligence budget is classified.

In particular, lawmakers want more information about China’s advanced technology development. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has pledged to invest billions of dollars in quantum science, artificial intelligence and other technologies that have the potential to disrupt how future wars are fought and economies structured.

As part of the shift, congressional committees are seeking to better track how intelligence agencies spend their funds on China, seeking more detail about 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 that region,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “This means in people, in resources, in military assets and in diplomacy.”

The CIA announced its creation last year Two new “mission centers” — one on China, one on emerging technologies — to centralize and improve intelligence collection on those issues. The CIA is trying to recruit more Chinese speakers and shorten the wait time for security clearance to hire new people faster.

Inside 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.

Officials note that intelligence officers are trained to adapt to new challenges, and many were moved more quickly into counterterrorism roles after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Advances in counterterrorism — better use of data to build networks and multiple sources of intelligence and identify targets — are also useful in countering Russia and China, former officials said.

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

The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, renamed the Counterterrorism Mission Center in a 2015 reorganization, is a source of pride for many who credit it with keeping Americans safe from terrorism after September 11. CIA officers entered Afghanistan on September 26, 2001. and was part of an operation to displace the Taliban and hunt down and kill al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

And 13 years later, the double agent tricked the authorities Pursuing al-Zawahri, he blew himself up, killing seven agency employees, the CIA killed him in a strike that caused no civilian casualties.

The CIA was also involved in some of the darkest moments in the war on terror. He ran a secret “black site” prison It was used, some improperly, to detain terrorism suspects, and was found by a Senate investigation Interrogation methods that amount to torture. Elite Afghan special operations units trained by the CIA were also accused Killing civilians and violating international law.

There has long been a debate over whether counterterrorism intelligence agencies have moved too far away from traditional espionage and whether some of the CIA’s work targeting terrorists should instead be done by special forces under the military.

Mark 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 reduce what we wanted to do.”

“All the CT work we did, somehow we turned the ball around that idea that it was wrong — just remember what everybody was thinking on September 12,” he said.

Reorienting the agencies to focus more on China and Russia will ultimately take years, and will require both patience and recognition that changing the agency’s culture will take time, Wise said.

“We’ve been doing counterterrorism for decades,” Wise said. “We need to have a rational plan for this adaptation, one that doesn’t take so long that our adversaries can exploit the glacial process.”

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