China has become a tough target for US spies

As Washington and Beijing are locked in a tense superpower rivalry, the United States faces an uphill task in discerning the intentions of leaders in a country of increasingly concentrated power and widespread surveillance, d former US intelligence officials.

Reliable information on China’s decision-making is in high demand in Washington amid fears that Beijing could choose to arm Russian forces waging war in Ukraine or try to take control of Taiwan by force.

But under President Xi Jinping, China has become an elusive target for US intelligence agencies, according to five former senior intelligence officials and congressional aides.

Xi’s tightening grip on power, his government’s vast electronic surveillance apparatus, a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and a strict three-year Covid lockdown have all made intelligence gathering extremely difficult, have said former officials. Some of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

Additionally, the United States has yet to fully recover from a catastrophic setback in which a network of intelligence informants inside China was exposed and dismantled.

The episode represented one of the largest intelligence breaches in American history, NBC News previously reported. The Chinese penetrated clandestine communications and used this knowledge to arrest and execute at least 20 CIA informants, according to several current and former government officials.

“It was a horrific and devastating loss for the intelligence community,” said a former intelligence official. “Lives have been lost.”

Top intelligence officials are due to testify Wednesday and Thursday at annual congressional hearings on global threats facing the United States, and China will likely dominate much of the discussion.

Until just a decade ago, China’s collective leadership, with power more diffused among different factions and individuals, provided a range of possible intelligence targets and a more fluid political environment.

“There was a wider circle of people that intelligence agencies could target. It’s a much more centralized and tighter system now,” said a former senior US intelligence official familiar with the matter.

“The risk of being surprised is greater.”

The consolidation of power under Xi combined with three years of a strict anti-Covid policy “has made it very difficult to get authoritative information out of the system,” said Chris Johnson, president of China Strategies Group, a consulting firm. political risk advice.

“Then more broadly, the expansion of their surveillance and monitoring capability over the years makes that very, very difficult,” said Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA.

In short, he said, “that’s a b—-.”

If Xi were to die suddenly, US intelligence agencies would likely have no clear idea of ​​who might succeed him, former intelligence officers and analysts have said.

“That’s how closed the system is, because we just don’t know,” said Dennis Wilder, who served as the CIA’s deputy deputy director for East Asia and the Pacific from 2015 to 2016.

“The inner ring is difficult to penetrate,” said Wilder, now a research fellow with the Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University.

The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to requests for comment.

“Not a black box”

Some former intelligence officials and regional experts are more optimistic about America’s ability to read China, as they say Xi and other senior Communist officials often publicly state the regime’s goals and objectives.

“China is not an intelligence black box,” said a former national security official. “Far from it. Reviewing his speeches and directives, intelligence analysts have long believed that Xi was seeking to supplant the United States as the dominant power in the world and replace the US-led order with an order that reflects China’s values ​​and interests.

CIA Director William Burns and other top Biden administration officials recently chose to publicly release intelligence reports suggesting China was considering supplying arms to Russia in its war in Ukraine.

CIA Director William Burns speaks at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia on July 8, 2022.
CIA Director William Burns speaks at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia on July 8, 2022.Susan Walsh / AP file

The disclosure “shows that there is insight into what is happening in the upper echelons of the Chinese government,” said Mollie Saltskog, senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy.

Early intelligence to suggest China was considering such a move was gleaned from Russian government officials, NBC News previously reported. US officials then corroborated information from other intelligence sources and with allies, a current and former US official said.

China has denied plans to send lethal aid to Russia, dismissing the US charge of “misinformation”.

US officials say they have exposed and disrupted Chinese attempts to spy inside the United States in recent years. The first Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited to the United States, Yanjun Xu, was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of economic espionage against GE Aviation and other airlines.

US intelligence chiefs have pledged to treat China as their top priority. In 2021, the CIA announced a new center focused on collecting intelligence on China. The China Mission Center “will further strengthen our collective work on the most significant geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government,” Burns said in announcing the move.

Drawings in Taiwan

China has long refused to rule out the possibility of taking over Taiwan by force if necessary, but some senior US military commanders have warned that the People’s Liberation Army is ready and even likely to launch an invasion in the next few years. .

Some former Chinese intelligence officials and experts disagree, saying there is a clear distinction between China’s military capabilities and the intentions of its political leaders – and that Xi’s plans remain unclear.

Washington’s increasingly harsh rhetoric risks pushing China into more aggressive action rather than preventing it, former officials have said.

China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday that the United States and China were headed for an inevitable “confrontation and conflict” unless Washington changed course.

The intelligence challenge posed by China and the increasingly hostile atmosphere clouding US-China relations underscore the need for increased dialogue between the two superpowers to avoid an unintended collision, former intelligence officials said. .

The Biden administration has cited the need to boost America’s competitiveness and rally allies and partners to counter China, but “you also have to talk to the Chinese,” said Johnson, the former CIA analyst . “You have to talk to them.”

Channels of communication, especially between the Chinese and US military, have withered as relations deteriorated. The communication breakdown was on full display when a Chinese surveillance balloon swept across the United States last month after the Chinese rebuffed a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, called the lack of communication “unsettling and dangerous” and said “we think we both should do a better job of handle it”.

“It’s the kind of times when we have to talk about our intentions, our perspectives,” he said.


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button