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 would remain a priority — but that the agency’s money and resources would be increasingly shifted to focusing on China.
The CIA drone attack that killed al-Qaida’s leader showed that fighting terrorism is hardly an afterthought.
But it didn’t change the message the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, delivered at that meeting weeks earlier: While the U.S. will continue to go after terrorists, the top priority is trying to better understand and counter Beijing.
One year after ending the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and top national security officials speak less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threats posed by China as well as Russia.
There’s been a quiet pivot within intelligence agencies, which are moving hundreds of officers to China-focused positions, including some who were previously working on terrorism.
The U.S. has long been alarmed by China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has tried to influence foreign elections, mounted campaigns of cyber and corporate espionage, and detained millions of minority Uyghurs in camps.
Some experts also think Beijing will in the coming years try to seize the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan by force.
Intelligence officials have said they need more insights on China, including after being unable to definitively pinpoint the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing has been accused of withholding information about the origins of the virus.
And the war in Ukraine has underscored Russia’s importance as a target. The U.S. used declassified information to expose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans before the invasion and rally diplomatic support for Kyiv.
Supporters of the Biden administration approach note that the U.S. was able to track and kill al-Zawahri is evidence of its capabilities to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul, under the apparent protection of the Taliban, suggests there’s a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-equipped to counter.
The shift in priorities is supported by many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties who say it’s overdue.
That includes people who served in Afghanistan and other missions against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he believed the U.S. had been overly focused on counterterrorism over the last several years.
“A far greater existential threat is Russia and China,” said Crow, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy the American way of life ... the way China can.”
CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp noted that terrorism “remains a very real challenge.”
“Even as crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges such as that posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, CIA will continue to aggressively track terrorist threats globally and work with partners to counter them,” Thorp 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 condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
Pushing resources toward China has required cuts elsewhere, including in counterterrorism. Specific figures were unavailable because intelligence budgets are classified.
In particular, lawmakers want more information about China’s development in advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has committed trillions of dollars in investment to quantum science, artificial intelligence, and other technologies that are likely to disrupt how future wars are fought and economies are structured. Source: apnews