As U.S. spies look to the future, one target stands out: China
It's pretty rare for U.S. spies to gather at a conference and talk openly about the most pressing national security threats.
"I've got to tell you all, it's so odd after 27 years of being in the clandestine service, to see your picture and your bio pop up," said Cynthia Saddy, a retired CIA officer. As she spoke to a ballroom filled with current and former intelligence officials at a resort in Sea Island, Ga., a huge screen displayed her photo and the high-powered positions she held at the agency, including chief of staff in the Directorate of Operations.
One former CIA director, Michael Hayden, joined the Cipher Brief Threat Conference virtually and helped set the tone as he shared the advice he gave to the current CIA director, William Burns.
"First of all, you've got to go to China. And then second of all, you've got to go go to China. And the third one is, you've got to go to China. And he said, 'OK, I got it,'" Hayden recounted.
The U.S. intelligence community focused on the Soviet Union for decades. Then the priority was Middle East terrorism. Now, the intelligence community says, a new era has begun.
"I call this entering the third epoch of intelligence," said Sue Gordon. In a series of high-level jobs, she provided intelligence briefs to five of the past six presidents before retiring in 2019 as the principal deputy director of national intelligence.
"We kind of woke up out of our counterterrorism stupor to realize that the world had become digital, and that we hadn't been focusing on all the things we needed to," she said. "The rise of China happened during those years, and now you see us talking about Great Power competition."
A CIA center devoted to China
CIA Director Burns has seemingly embraced all this advice. After reviewing the CIA's priorities, his first big move was announcing the establishment of a China Mission Center to focus more on the country seen as the principal U.S. competitor.
David Cohen, the no. 2 official at the CIA, told the conference this means more resources will be devoted to China, the different parts of the agency will more closely coordinate their work on China, and Burns will host a weekly meeting devoted entirely to that country.
"What we've come to realize is that we need to enhance and synchronize our efforts around China," he said.
This comes as the U.S.-China competition heats up on several fronts, and China's leader Xi Jinping talks increasingly about his country's growing global clout and what he views as the decline of the U.S.
The U.S. intelligence community wants to know what Xi is thinking about Taiwan, where tensions have been rising. China's recent test of a hypersonic missile seemed to catch the U.S. by surprise. And there's the ongoing race for cutting-edge technologies, like artificial intelligence.
Critics say this constant drumbeat of threat warnings about China can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, inflaming tensions with Beijing and leading the U.S. to overlook other potential flashpoints from Russia to Iran to North Korea.
David Cohen offered this response: "I will hasten to add that we are the Central Intelligence Agency. We are not the China Intelligence Agency."
Still, the conference was a vivid demonstration of how the U.S. intelligence community is making a pivot to China.
China's massive intelligence operation focuses on technology
The current and former officials say that no country — not even the Soviet Union at its peak — spied on the U.S. in such a comprehensive way as China now does.
"They've got more people than we could ever dream of having. They are going to collect as much data as they can get, put it in a big data pool and and use artificial intelligence, use machine processing to then target us," said Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff. "I mean, it is scary."
China pursues traditional spying targets — government and military secrets. But Beijing wants much, much more. China is unique in its sweeping, systematic approach to gather cutting-edge technology from U.S. companies and universities.
So how should the U.S. protect itself?
"Our system is really set up to fight a nation-state. It focuses on things that are illegal, things that are a direct military application. What we're seeing now, and especially the focus in academia, in commerce," said Anna Puglisi, a former intelligence official who focused on China. She's now at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology. "It's a very, very different threat than we had in the past."
She says academia in particular has a spirit of sharing, and is often reluctant to impose restrictions.
"We do get a lot of pushback on that because (academics) will say, 'Well, this is open research,'" she said. "And that is so true. We don't want to stem that. But what's key is our academics should have the choice of when they share their information and when they don't."
China had more than 300,000 students at U.S. universities, far more than any other country, before the COVID pandemic reduced the numbers. Many study in high-tech fields and are involved in important research.
Bill Evanina, who led many government investigations into the theft of intellectual property, says the U.S. shouldn't close the door to top-flight students from China and elsewhere. But, he argues, universities need a better understanding of the risks. After leaving government this year, he set up a company that helps schools protect themselves in the STEM fields.
"It's the small proportion of people that we have to be concerned about, the postgraduate STEM world, where (China's government) is looking to obtain research and intelligence that's going to help their military and academic world," he said.
A hard target to spy on
Another key point is that China is a notoriously hard target for the U.S. to spy against because of its tight internal security and ubiquitous surveillance.
The U.S. may want to collect more intelligence on China, but it's hard to make that happen, said Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer who now runs the Intelligence Project at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
"You can't flip a switch and suddenly have a stable of Chinese assets, great penetrations of the inner sanctum of government," Kolbe said. "You have to develop officers who know the language, the culture, and that can establish deep relationships of trust that are required to do agent operations."
U.S. intelligence agencies went through an overhaul after the 9/11 attacks. Agencies that had been geared toward the Soviet Union and Russia for decades suddenly found themselves in need of Arabic speakers with a deep knowledge of Islamist extremism.
So where does the CIA recruit these new officers? The ideal candidate would be a fluent Mandarin speaker, with an advanced degree in artificial intelligence — and a willingness to work for a government salary.
"So that is quite a unicorn, right? It's not easy, but they're out there," said Cynthia Strand, who retired last year after 35 years at the CIA.
She's now at a private company called Primer, which uses artificial intelligence to sort through huge volumes of data, find specific information, and then summarize it and translate it from, say, Mandarin to English.
"Imagine if you had a large cadre of a good interns," Strand said. "You want to put them on the tasks where they can cut their teeth and learn, and leave the higher thought work to people who have been trained and practicing for a long time."
She says human intelligence remains critical, but technology keeps leaping forward.
"No one, no human being, no matter how exceptional they are, can consume and make sense of the volumes of data that are available. Machines can do that beautifully," Strand added.
It's just one example, she says, of how technology is redefining spycraft for a new era — an era that's here to stay.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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