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The CIA’s next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia

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A former diplomat, William J. Burns is President Biden’s choice to lead the CIA and has been an envoy in the role, abroad and with the workforce.

For the last 20 years the Central Intelligence Agency, like the entirety of America’s national security infrastructure, focused on the global war on terrorism. As that period concludes or at least fades from the central feature, the CIA, like the Department of Defense, is now pivoting to strategic competition with Russia and China. This presents new organizational and operational challenges but is absolutely critical. 

If America is to succeed in this multi-faceted, dynamic era of competition with Moscow and Beijing, the CIA must remain at the forefront, and adapt and be resourced accordingly. 

As part of this pivot, in early October, William Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, announced the creation of new mission centers to address China and transnational threats such as pandemics and climate change. The changes announced by Burns follow just six years after his predecessor, John Brennan, announced a similar reorganization of the agency into 10 mission centers, and just four years after Director Mike Pompeo announced the creation of Iran and Korea mission centers, both of which will be absorbed by larger Near East and East Asia centers, according to reports. The goal of both organizational changes was to bring officers and analysts closer together and to streamline the agency’s activities. 

Modeled on and informed by the Mission Center for Counterterrorism, these centers were intended to streamline collection, targeting, analysis and dissemination under mission-focused groupings. In many ways, this reform borrowed from the Department of Defense’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operational model. Born and matured in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, JSOC became exceptionally efficient at finding, fixing and finishing (killing or otherwise eliminating) targets, and exploiting intelligence for follow-on missions. JSOC became so efficient that one raid would roll into another, and another, with units launching multiple raids over the course of one night before returning to base. 

In the wake of 9/11 the agency, like the vast majority of the national security apparatus, shifted its energies to the prevention of the next wave of attacks, attacks everyone feared were coming and would be worse. The agency shifted some of its attention from strategic and over-the-horizon threats to providing operational and tactical-level intelligence for both the military, but also for the agency’s clandestine counterterrorism program, largely conducted by drone and paramilitary operations officers. 

This transformation led to extraordinary successes, most of which will never be known by the American people. This also led to the agency taking on missions for which there were no legal precedents and which it otherwise may not have done, e.g. extraordinary rendition, “black sites,” enhanced interrogation, etc. These programs, it is worth noting, were approved through the congressional oversight process. It is then unconscionable that politicians hung agency officers out to dry for actions taken in defense of the country when it became no longer politically palatable.   

The challenge is that the battlefield successes in the counterterrorism campaign are not analogous to that of strategic competition. Divining what the Central Committee in Beijing is considering, or what oligarch is falling in or out of favor in the Kremlin is a long game requiring a great deal more patience and finesse than eliminating a high-value terrorist target. A low-ranking asset recruited at an embassy in Africa will require a great deal of time, care and feeding, and careful management as they return to their capital and rise to become an agent with unique and critical access.  

Here a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate. In the case of China, it may well make sense and provide both efficiencies and senior-level attention provided it is resourced and staffed appropriately. Indeed, during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath “Russia House,” the unofficial name for the Mission Center for Europe and Eurasia, was singularly focused on the hardest of hard targets, and compartmentalized accordingly. 

Yet, in some ways, the proliferation of mission centers also reflects an outdated model of agency activities. The way intelligence is collected and analyzed today is no longer in the silos that it once was, even in the halls of the “Russia House” and its China counterpart. Officers and analysts are not as divorced as they perhaps once were during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest lesson of the global war on terror — silos lead to gaps, and gaps create space for threats to fester. 

There are, of course, reasons for the separation (at least some measure of separation) between officers and analysts. For one, operational security is maintained when analysts do not know the identities or even cryptonyms of agents. The more individuals that have access to critical information, the greater the likelihood that the information could leak either by omission or commission. This is not an idle concern — the New York Times recently reported on a top-secret cable warning CIA stations and outposts that an alarming number of agents (recruited spies) were being captured or killed.

The agency’s human intelligence efforts are probably under greater pressure than at any point in its history, due in no small part to the emergence of a global panopticon of surveillance technology. Running agents and serving as an operations officer is exceedingly more challenging than the days of the Cold War or even its immediate aftermath. With the growth and proliferation of cheap AI and machine learning-enabled cameras, global database hacks and more, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and run agents. 

Nonetheless, as former Operations Officer Marc Polymeropoulos recently wrote, “Despite the challenges of technology, such as biometrics and smart cities, the CIA can still today meet agents anywhere, anytime, with proper planning and smart execution.” Human intelligence has always been and remains difficult, but it is absolutely doable. 

The CIA was on the front line of the war on terror and will be on the very tip of the spear for strategic competition. This means transitioning back to a focus on strategic and over-the-horizon intelligence and away from rapid targeting and target elimination. It needs to re-embrace the human aspect of human intelligence if we are to win this contest of wills with Beijing and Moscow. 

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

Tags central intelligence agency Central Intelligence Agency Intelligence agencies Intelligence gathering disciplines John Brennan Joint Special Operations Command Mike Pompeo Mike Rogers Military intelligence United States intelligence agencies William Burns

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