Monday, December 20, 2021

China Is Evading U.S. Spies — and the White House Is Worried


China Is Evading U.S. Spies — and the White House Is Worried

Under Xi Jinping, China has become an even harder target for America’s spying operation.


Those officials, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive issues, say China is becoming a harder target, more opaque, just as the demand for insights into Xi’s decision-making is soaring and tensions with the U.S. are heating up over issues from Taiwan to high technology.

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That reality comes after officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations said they were surprised by Beijing’s rapid moves to consolidate control of Hong Kong, project military power across the South China Sea, limit probes into the origins of Covid-19, undercut Chinese companies going public in the U.S. and ramp up hacking against adversaries.

The current and former officials emphasize that America’s spy agencies have long struggled to provide the insights policy makers demand on China. The hurdles facing the U.S. intelligence community are both deep-seated — Beijing did significant damage to American spy networks in China prior to Xi’s presidency — and basic, including a continuing shortage of Mandarin speakers. 

Biden and China's Xi Said to Talk Next Week
Biden, Xi Said to Talk Next Week

“Our human intelligence has been lagging for decades,” former National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an interview, when asked about China. “I never feel I have enough intelligence. I’m always willing to hear more. I’m never satisfied. No decision maker should be.” 

Read more: Pentagon Sees China’s Nuclear Arsenal Growing Faster Than Expected

As the Biden administration seeks to shift more of its foreign policy strategy toward countering China, Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns last month announced the creation of a China Mission Center to hone the agency’s focus on “an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.” 

William Burns Confirmation Hearing To Be Director Of CIA Before Senate Intelligence Committee
CIA Director Bill Burns

Some of the people interviewed by Bloomberg said that such announcements are more symbolic than substantive and need to be backed up by increases in spending and staffing to have credibility. 

CIA officials declined to comment.

Several of the current and former officials say U.S. intelligence shortfalls are worsening, a problem that comes as the 68-year-old Xi seeks to cement his legacy alongside former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping at a key Communist Party meeting in Beijing this week. That gathering, one of the last hurdles before Xi likely secures a third term as head of the party next year, takes place with the U.S. having little insight on some basic issues, such as who his eventual successor is likely to be. And it comes after some high-profile intelligence flubs on other topics, including the failure to foresee the Taliban’s rapid takeover in Afghanistan. 

Earlier: Xi Set to Unveil New Doctrine That Could Let Him Rule for Life

Criticism of the intelligence community’s insights on China weigh most heavily on the CIA, which has primary responsibility for recruiting spies and saw its network severely damaged more than a decade ago by Beijing’s counterintelligence efforts. 

Those efforts were detailed extensively in 2017 by the New York Times, which said as many as a dozen U.S. sources were executed by China, with others jailed, in what represented one of the worst breaches ever of American spying networks. 

The creation of the CIA mission center was denounced as a “typical symptom of the Cold War mentality” by China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. The U.S. “should view China’s development and China-U.S. relations in an objective and rational light and stop doing things detrimental to mutual trust and cooperation,” he added. 

Zhao Lijian
China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian
Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier: CIA Zeros In on Beijing by Creating China-Focused Mission Center

But for the leading consumers of intelligence in the Biden administration — a group that includes the senior-most officials with access to the highly classified President’s Daily Brief — a stronger pivot to China can’t come soon enough. Last week the Pentagon said it now sees China’s nuclear arsenal growing faster than forecast, the latest in a series of stepped-up assessments of Beijing’s global ambitions. 

CIA Looks Beyond Hardware

Xi’s sweeping efforts to change China’s domestic politics and consolidate his control also have taken a toll on American intelligence. The shift from a system of “collective” leadership under former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao toward one dominated by Xi means that the CIA has had to go from focusing on the inner circles of seven or even nine top leaders to, effectively, just one. 

Even before Xi, China’s political system was highly secretive and organized using a “stove-piped” system where information flows up to top leaders but rarely is disseminated widely inside the system. Chinese academia, the media and civil society organizations are all closely controlled by the government, further compounding the challenge of reporting on the country. 

Consumers of intelligence often fail to recognize the severity of these challenges, former U.S. officials explained, and may have unrealistic expectations for what conclusions can be drawn from any raw intelligence collected in the field. 

Xi’s broad anti-corruption campaign, which has punished more than 1.5 million officials, has also led to greater scrutiny of Chinese officials’ income, making payments to potential sources far more problematic, two former officials said. 

U.S. Said to Lack Intelligence on Xi's Inner Circle
WATCH: U.S. Said to Lack Intelligence on Xi's Inner Circle

Why China’s a ‘Hard Target’

Despite China’s history as a “hard target” for the CIA to penetrate, the agency exists precisely to overcome such challenges, whether it’s deciphering the leadership of al-Qaeda or Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea. 

What’s more, the agency was capable of providing significant insights into the upper reaches of the Chinese political system as recently as a decade ago, one former intelligence official said. Its ability to penetrate the Chinese leadership has ebbed and flowed over time, but the agency’s current ability to do so is more limited, the person said.

Another former official said that if he were sitting in the White House Situation Room today, his priority requests of the intelligence community would center on projections for China’s buildup of its Navy, cyber and artificial intelligence capabilities; Xi’s plans for Taiwan; and better intelligence on Beijing’s strategy for the South China Sea. This person said the Trump White House also lacked good intelligence on China’s strategy toward Vietnam, India and North Korea. 

The frustrations of administration officials echo public assessments from Congress. 

A partially redacted House Intelligence Committee report from September 2020 concluded that U.S. spy agencies were failing to meet the multifaceted challenges posed by China and were overly focused on traditional targets such as terrorism or conventional military threats. 

“Absent a significant realignment of resources, the U.S. government and intelligence community will fail to achieve the outcomes required to enable continued U.S. competition with China on the global stage for decades to come, and to protect the U.S. health and security,” according to the report. 

The report also cited America’s foreign policy focus on the Middle East and the “war on terror” as reasons the intelligence community came to treat “traditional intelligence missions as secondary to counterterrorism.” 

The China-Taiwan Conflict

Taiwan Holds Military Exercise
Taiwan's armed forces take part in a military exercise in Jan. 2021.

A leading concern now is the question of whether Xi would invade Taiwan, or possibly seek to take smaller islands controlled by Taiwan, a move that would be seen as a significant test of Western resolve. 

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week reiterated his view that China is unlikely to take Taiwan by force within the next 24 months. And China’s state media have sought to quiet online speculation that a conflict with Taiwan may be imminent. 

China Moves to Quash Online Rumors That Taiwan War Is Looming

“Xi has sent contradictory signals on Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It is difficult to disaggregate which signals Xi intends for the Party elite, the general domestic audience, Taiwan audiences or the United States.”

For now, the intelligence community’s analysis relies more on inductive reasoning about whether an invasion would align with Xi’s stated objectives than on raw intelligence on the Chinese leader’s views, according to the people. 

Former officials explained that recovering from China’s dismantling of the CIA’s network in China involves a multiyear process that includes the recruitment and onboarding of new assets, followed by systematically increasing the asset’s access to sensitive information. That’s probably still underway, the people said. 

In addition, CIA officers in China face daunting challenges posed by China’s burgeoning surveillance state, which has blanketed Chinese cities with surveillance cameras and employs sophisticated facial recognition software to track threats. 

QuickTake: Why Taiwan Is the Biggest Risk for a U.S.-China Clash

Beijing Gears Up for the Annual National People's Congress
Surveillance cameras on the outer perimeter of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

In an interview with National Public Radio in July, Burns said the agency was looking into how to deal with “ubiquitous technical surveillance” and other “very advanced capabilities on the part of the Chinese intelligence service.” 

Problem-Solving Outside China

Burns also has hinted at one potential fix for the agency’s problems.

The CIA chief told NPR that the agency was considering whether to deploy China specialists in locations outside China, following the approach used to counter Soviet influence in the Cold War. One of the former officials said the effort was being undertaken partly in the hope that overseas destinations prove a more fertile recruitment environment than the closely surveilled streets of Beijing.

But that strategy is more of a long-term fix. In the short term, officials are having to brace for more of the rapid moves that have distinguished Xi’s leadership in recent years, without knowing what they may be. 

Bolton, who served under former President Donald Trump, said that means officials will have to play the hand they are holding now, making the best use of what they have, even if that information has gaps that are widening over time. 

“There comes a point when you have to make a decision,” he said. “You’re not going to have complete intel. Live with it.”

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