After two decades of intense paramilitary action against Islamist terror groups, some former officers and intelligence overseers say the CIA needs to get back to the kind of traditional, quiet tradecraft needed to collect intelligence against complex nation-states — in particular China, which senior officials have openly acknowledged presents the agency with its biggest challenge.
In theory, the change will allow the CIA to better staff remote outposts seen as critical to the China mission — places like west Africa, for example, that have a lot of Chinese infrastructure investment but are seen as too far away from the action to be a desirable assignment, sources said.
It will also help ensure that the agency is developing officers with the appropriate expertise over the long term. Beyond just hiring more Mandarin speakers and investing in technology, the move cuts to the very heart of the CIA: its human intelligence collectors.
This relatively obscure personnel management shift could have significant impact on the lives of spies, particularly earlier in their careers. Since a few years after 9/11, officers have had more freedom to move around to different assignments within the agency — rather than have their trajectory scripted.
Made at a time when the CIA needed to staff America’s growing war zones, the post-9/11 change was controversial among officers. While it gave them more flexibility, some former operations officers say the result was that officers received less mentorship and thoughtful career development as a result.
Under the new policy, the CIA’s so-called mission centers — the units within the agency focused on particular geographic regions or transnational challenges — will have more control over the assignments and language and other training that an operations officer receives over the long term.
Although there is some flexibility in the new policy, sources say — officers won’t be locked into one geographical area exclusively — in general they won’t become a free agent until later in their careers.
With some variations, the new policy is a return to how the agency managed the careers of its young officers before the counterterrorism wars.
“The agency appears in many ways to be trying to replicate some of the things that worked well before the counterterrorism wars dominated everyone’s focus,” said Thad Troy, a former operations officer who served as chief of station in several European capitals. He cautioned he did not have knowledge of the policy change.
Tying officers to a geographic area or functional issue “serves a worldwide mission better because you were developing and perfecting that geographical, issue — or in some cases, specific tradecraft expertise — and you were giving officers a place to grow, develop, and establish mentorship,” Troy said.
CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia
“In general we are always looking for ways to develop our workforce professionally,” a CIA spokesman said in a statement. “Our people are our top priority.” The agency declined to comment on the specifics of any personnel management change.
The change is not just about countering China, sources say, which CIA Director Bill Burns has listed as among his top priorities for the agency and has come to dominate public conversation about the agency’s future.
“We are very focused on China these days, although I will hasten to add that in all of our conversations about China, we made clear that we are the Central Intelligence Agency, we are not the Chinese Intelligence Agency,” Deputy Director David Cohen said at a recent intelligence conference.
But, he added, “what we’ve come to realize is that we need to really enhance and synchronize our efforts around China.”
‘A Hard Target’
The Chinese Communist Party is what intelligence professionals call a “hard target” — difficult for the CIA to penetrate, either through digital means or by recruiting human spies.
Current and former intelligence officials say that US intelligence inside China — particularly human intelligence that is the CIA’s bread-and-butter — is frustratingly poor, for a myriad of reasons.
The new policy shift, former officials say, could help combat that challenge by building geographical experts over the long term — and helping field them in the right places with the right tradecraft.
“For us, it’s important for the overall mission to have expertise in a geographic area or on an issue,” Troy said. “You don’t acquire that in six months, but over the course of working in a region or on an issue for 10 years or more.”
Over the course of several years beginning in 2010, Beijing effectively decimated the CIA’s network of recruited agents, killing or imprisoning over a dozen sources over two years, according to The New York Times. Such networks take years to develop and sources say it’s unlikely that they have recovered.
Some critics believe that the agency’s focus on counterterrorism missions — which became a part of almost every officer’s career and often had officers operating from armored convoys in countries where they spoke little of the local language — left its traditional spying chops anemic.
“As the counterterrorism mission expanded, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence assesses that the IC treated traditional intelligence missions as secondary to counterterrorism,” said a 2020 report on the intelligence community’s abilities to counter China. “The inattention of the 1990s to strategic and emerging threats remained largely unreversed.”
Meanwhile, the rapid proliferation of big data and ubiquitous surveillance technology has made the job of intelligence collectors infinitely more difficult. Gone are the days when a CIA operations officer could simply pick up a new passport and assume a new identity in a different country, senior officials have acknowledged publicly.
“China has emerged as our most significant and daunting challenge,” said Jennifer Ewbank, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Digital Innovation, at a recent intelligence conference. “The plans and intentions of despots and terrorists — the things that have yet to happen — are increasingly more difficult to uncover by traditional means.”
CIA Director William Burns testifies during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on October 27, 2021.
Still, senior officials insist the agency has not taken its eye off the ball when it comes to counterterrorism. Burns, speaking on Monday at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit, listed China, Russia, Iran and “continuing counterterrorism challenges that we don’t get to neglect or walk away from” when asked what keeps him up at night.
The change in how the CIA manages its operations officers is one of many it has undertaken to boost its spying and analysis capabilities targeting China.
The agency recently stood up a “China Mission Center” — the only one focused on only one country, rather than a region of the world. Burns has also said publicly that he is exploring “forward-deploying” China specialists, placing them in countries around the world where the US and China both operate.
In addition to the new mission center, the agency has also added a weekly meeting with the Burns focused exclusively on China, Cohen said at a recent intelligence conference. It is also allocating more of its budget to the problem, Cohen said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in December that US spy agencies had increased their China-related spending by almost 20 percent in the last fiscal year.
“We need specialists with deep linguistic and operational expertise to drive forward our collection targets,” said one former officer who cautioned that they did not have knowledge of the policy change.
“That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have different experiences, it just means we have a mission to execute and that doesn’t always include what we desire individually.”