February 6, 2023

WASHINGTON (Associated Press) — In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, the second CIA official made clear that fighting al Qaeda and other extremist groups would remain a priority — but that the agency’s money and resources would increasingly remain to focus on China.

CIA drone attack kills al-Qaeda leader Show that fighting terrorism is not an afterthought. But it did not change the message that the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, sent at that meeting weeks ago: While the United States will continue to go after terrorists, the highest priority is to try to better understand and combat Beijing.

One 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 and Russia. There has been a quiet pivot within the intelligence agencies, which is moving hundreds of officers to positions focused on China, including some who previously worked on terrorism.

He made clear last week that the United States should deal with both at the same time. Days after the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, China conducted large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut off communications with the United States over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

The United States has long worried about China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China tried to influence foreign electionsAnd organized cyber and corporate espionage campaignsMillions of the Uyghur minority were detained in camps. Some experts also believe that in the coming years, Beijing will try to seize the democratic, autonomous island of Taiwan By force.

Intelligence officials said they need more ideas about 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.

The war in Ukraine emphasized Russia’s importance as a target. The United States used declassified information in the disclosure Russian President Vladimir Putin planned war before the invasion and mobilized diplomatic support for Kiev.

Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach point to the fact that the United States was able to track down and kill al-Zawahiri as evidence of its ability to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahiri was living in Kabul, under apparent protection from the Taliban, indicates a resurgence of extremist groups. America is not prepared to confront it.

The shift in priorities has the support of many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties who say it is overdue. This includes people who have 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 United States has been overly focused on counterterrorism over the past several years.

“Russia and China pose a much greater existential threat,” said Crowe, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. He said terrorist groups “will not destroy the American way of life… the way China can.”

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

“Even as crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges like those posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, the CIA will continue to aggressively track terrorist threats globally and work with partners to confront them,” Thorpe 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 the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Pushing resources toward China has required cutbacks elsewhere, including in the fight against terrorism. Exact figures were not available because intelligence budgets are disaggregated.

In particular, lawmakers want more information about China’s development in advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has committed trillions of dollars of investment in quantum science, artificial intelligence, and other technologies that are likely to disrupt how future wars are fought and economies are structured.

As part of the shift, congressional committees are trying to track how intelligence agencies better spend their funding on China, and are seeking more details 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 area,” said Representative Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “That means in people, in resources, in military assets, and in diplomacy.”

The CIA announced last year that it would create Two new “mission centers” – one on China and 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 waiting times on security clearances to hire new people faster.

Within the agency, many officers are learning Chinese and moving to new positions 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 that many of them were transferred more quickly to counterterrorism roles after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Progress in counterterrorism work—including better use of data and various intelligence sources to build networks and identify Targets – also useful in the face of Russia and China, former officers said.

“It’s an analytics and targeting machine that has become exceptional,” 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 source of pride for many people who owe its work to keeping Americans safe from terrorism after 9/11, and CIA officers in Afghanistan landed in September 26, 2001, they were part of the operations to displace the Taliban and find and kill al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

13 years later, a double agent deceived the officers Pursuing Al-Zawahiri and blowing himself up, killing seven agency employees, he was killed by the CIA in a raid with no civilian casualties reported.

The CIA was also involved in some of the darkest moments of the war on terror. She ran secret prisons, the Black Site. To detain terrorism suspects, some by mistake, and a Senate investigation found that he used Interrogation methods that amounted to torture. It also accused the elite Afghan special operations units trained by the CIA By killing civilians and violating international law.

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

Mark Polymeropoulos is a retired CIA operations officer and former head of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. He said he supported focusing more on China and Russia, but added: “There is no reason to reduce what we have to do.”

“This idea that all the CT work that we did was somehow wrong, that we took the ball into account — just remember on September 12 what everyone was feeling,” he said.

Wise said reorienting agencies toward more focus on China and Russia will ultimately take years and require patience and recognition that the agency’s culture will take time to change.

“For decades, we’ve been doing counterterrorism,” Wise said. “We must have a rational plan for making this adaptation, which doesn’t take long for our enemies to exploit an icy process.”

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