Describing an effort that will enlist every corner of the spy agency, a senior CIA official drew comparisons to the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union, but said China was a more formidable and complicated rival given the size of its economy, which is completely entwined with that of the United States, and its own global reach.
Just as it did against the Soviets, the CIA will deploy more officers, linguists, technicians and specialists in countries around the world to gather intelligence and counter China’s interests, said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more fully describe Burns’s remarks.
The agency will also recruit and train more Mandarin speakers, the official said. He added that Burns would now meet weekly with the head of the mission center, as well as other top leaders from across the agency, to develop a cohesive strategy.
Former director John O. Brennan, who oversaw a sweeping reorganization of the CIA during the Obama administration, credited Burns for the new approach on China.
“If there is any country that deserves its own mission center, it is China, which has global ambitions and presents the greatest challenge to U.S. interests and to international order,” Brennan said.
Under Burns’s predecessor, Gina Haspel, the CIA began to come down from a wartime footing in which it was principally focused on penetrating and dismantling terrorist networks and began to return its focus to so-called hard targets, chiefly China, but also Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Burns said the focus on those other countries would not diminish and the CIA would continue a counterterrorism mission. But the creation of the new China center was a clear indication that the country is and will probably remain the agency’s No. 1 target.
Four years ago, the CIA set up new centers to consolidate its work on Iran and North Korea. But those modifications of an already vast bureaucracy may have proved too narrow.
The senior official said that the Iran and Korea mission centers would now be absorbed by larger components focused on whole regions, the Near East and East Asia, respectively.
Former CIA director Mike Pompeo, a longtime Iran hawk, had set up both the Iran and Korea centers in 2017, when the Trump administration increased pressure to deter Iran’s nuclear weapons program and force North Korea to negotiate over its own nuclear arsenal.
The senior CIA official said that in countering Iran and North Korea, the CIA thought it was crucial to work with allies across their respective regions and not isolate efforts in separate centers.
Asked why agency leaders believed China needed its own mission center when they were effectively shutting them down for two other hard targets, the senior official described China as unique, because no other single country requires work that stretches across all of the agency’s mission areas, including intelligence collectors, analysts, linguists and technologists.
Burns is also enacting other changes to the CIA’s structure and hiring process, designed in part to make the agency more competitive as an employer.
Today, it can take up to two years for applicants to wind their way through interviews and the lengthy process of being approved for a security clearance. The senior official said the agency will endeavor to shorten that timeline to six months.
The CIA will create a new technology fellowship program to allow private-sector experts to work for a year or two at the agency and will appoint a new chief technology officer, the senior official said.
While the CIA has excelled throughout its history at crafting technology to spy on its adversaries, the rapid evolution of commercial technology has put the agency at a disadvantage. Today, through simple Internet searches, a rival intelligence service can sometimes identify CIA officers in their country and discover whom they might be trying to recruit as spies, current and former officials have said.
At the same time, the agency’s reliance on technology to communicate with its foreign sources may have helped identify them. About 10 years ago, Chinese and Iranian authorities penetrated the CIA’s covert communications system and managed to identify and round up agents in their countries, according to people familiar with the debacles.
Acknowledging past security failures, without commenting on them directly, the senior official said the agency was establishing another center to develop technology that would strengthen its tradecraft, a reference to espionage tools and techniques.
That new center will also encompass transnational threats such as climate change, disease outbreaks and humanitarian crises.
The focus on tradecraft comes amid warnings from CIA counterintelligence officials. In a cable dispatched to personnel around the world last week, the agency pointed out the number of agents who had been executed by foreign governments to persuade CIA officers to work harder to protect their sources from being discovered, according to people familiar with the matter.
Since taking over as CIA director in March, Burns has made China a priority, as well as caring for personnel who have been afflicted with what the agency calls “anomalous health incidents,” which include headaches, persistent dizziness and nausea that some officers believe are the result of a deliberate attack by a foreign government, possibly via a directed-energy weapon using something like lasers or microwaves.
The senior official said the agency continued to look for the source of the illnesses and the potential culprit. While investigators have developed what the official described as “some interesting leads,” he said they have yet to come to a conclusion.