Ian Morton / NPR
It is quite rare for American spies to gather for a conference and speak openly about the most pressing national security threats.
“I have to tell you all, it’s so weird after 27 years of being in the secret service, to see your picture and your bio show up,” he said. Cynthia Saddy, a retired CIA officer. She spoke to a ballroom filled with current and former intelligence officials at a resort in Sea Island, Ga. Behind her, a huge screen showed her photo and a list of senior positions she held in the agency, including chief of staff in the operations directorate.
A former CIA director, Michael Hayden, virtually attended the conference and helped set the tone as he shared the advice he gave to the current CIA director, William Burns.
“First of all, you’re going to China. And then secondly, you’re going to China. And the third is, you’re going to China. And he said, ‘OK, I get it,'” Hayden said.
The American intelligence community focused on the Soviet Union for decades. Then the priority was Middle Eastern terrorism. Now, the intelligence community says, a new era has begun.
“I call it going into the third intelligence era,” Sue Gordon said. In a number of high-level positions, she delivered intelligence letters to five of the last six presidents before retiring in 2019 as the primary deputy director of national intelligence.
“We woke up a little bit out of our anti-terror deaf people and realized that the world had gone digital and that we had not focused on all the things we were supposed to,” she said. “China’s emergence happened in those years, and now you see us talking about great power competition.”
Andy Wong / AP
The CIA Center dedicated to China
CIA Director Burns has apparently taken all this advice into account. After reviewing the CIA’s priorities, his first major move was to announce the establishment of a China mission center to focus more on the country seen as the main American competitor.
David Cohen, No. 2 official at the CIA, told the conference that this means more resources will be allocated to China, the various parts of the agency will coordinate their work with China more closely, and Burns will host a weekly meeting that is exclusively allocated to this country.
“What we have come to realize is that we need to improve and synchronize our efforts around China,” he said.
This comes as competition between the US and China heats up on several fronts, and China’s leader Xi Jinping is increasingly talking about his country’s growing global influence and what he sees as the US’s decline.
The American intelligence community wants to know what Xi thinks about Taiwan, where tensions have been rising. China’s latest test of a hypersonic missile appeared to surprise the United States. And there is the ongoing race for cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence.
Critics say this constant drumming of threat warnings about China could become a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels tensions with Beijing and causes the United States to overlook other potential hotspots from Russia to Iran to North Korea.
David Cohen offered this answer: “I would like to add that we are the Central Intelligence Agency. We are not the China Intelligence Agency.”
Yet the conference was a living demonstration of how the American intelligence community is making a focal point for China.
China’s massive intelligence operation focuses on technology
Current and former officials say no country – not even the Soviet Union at its highest – spied on the United States in such a comprehensive way as China does now.
“They have more people than we could ever dream of having. They’re 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 and then target us. ” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff. “I mean, it’s scary.”
China pursues traditional espionage targets – government and military secrets. But Beijing wants much, much more. China is unique in its sweeping, systematic approach to gathering cutting-edge technology from American companies and universities.
So how should the United States 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 see now, and especially focus in academia, on trade,” he said. Anna Puglisi, a former intelligence official who focused on China. She is now at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies. “It’s a very, very different threat than we had in the past.”
She says that especially the academic world has a spirit of sharing and is often reluctant to impose restrictions.
“We get a lot of backlash on it because (academics) will say, ‘Well, it’s open research,'” she said. “And it’s so true. We do not want to curb that. But the most important thing is that our academics have to have the choice between when they share their information and when they do not.”
China had more than 300,000 students at U.S. universities, far more than any other country before the COVID pandemic reduced the number. Many are studying 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 United States should not close the door on top students from China and elsewhere. But, he argues, universities need a better understanding of the risks. After leaving the government this year, he set up a company that helps schools protect themselves within the STEM fields.
“It’s the small percentage of people we need to be concerned about, the postgraduate STEM world, where (the Chinese government) is seeking research and intelligence that will help their military and academia,” he said.
A difficult goal to spy on
Another key point is that China is a notoriously difficult target for the United States to spy on because of its tight internal security and ubiquitous surveillance.
The U.S. may want to gather more intelligence about China, but it’s hard to make that happen, he 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 not turn a switch and suddenly have a stable of Chinese assets, large penetrations of the government’s inner shrine,” Kolbe said. “You need to develop officers who know the language, the culture, and who can establish the deep trust necessary to perform agent operations.”
US intelligence services underwent an overhaul after the 9/11 attacks. Agencies that had been targeting the Soviet Union and Russia for decades suddenly needed 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 public salary.
“So it’s something of a unicorn, isn’t it? It’s not easy, but they’re out there,” said Cynthia Strand, who retired last year after 35 years in the CIA.
She is now with a private company called Primer, which uses artificial intelligence to sort through huge amounts of data, find specific information and then summarize it and translate it from, for example, Mandarin to English.
“Imagine if you had a large cadre of good interns,” Strand said. “You want to put them on the tasks where they can cut teeth and learn, and leave the higher thought work to people who have been trained and practiced for a long time.”
She says human intelligence remains critical, but technology continues to leap forward.
“No one, no human, no matter how unusual they are, can consume and make sense of the amounts of data available. Machines can make it beautiful,” Strand added.
It’s just an example, she says, of how technology is redefining spycraft into a new era – an era that has come to stay.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. follow him @ gregmyre1.