CCP China Is Harder Target for US Intel – Biden in the Dark about Xi’s Intentions

Meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj / Photo via Kremlin.ru

As China’s would be ‘Leader-for-Life,’ Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping extends his official rule until 2027 (and beyond), senior Biden administration officials are struggling to get ahead of Beijing’s next steps. This, according to current and former officials who have reviewed sensitive U.S. intelligence reports, is due to a lack of top-tier intelligence on Xi and his inner circle.

According to Bloomberg, “those officials, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive issues, say China is becoming a harder target, more opaque, just as the demand for insights into Xi’s decision-making is soaring and tensions with the U.S. are heating up over issues from Taiwan to high technology.”

“Our human intelligence has been lagging for decades,” former National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an interview, when asked about China. “I never feel I have enough intelligence. I’m always willing to hear more. I’m never satisfied. No decision maker should be.”

However, much of this inability of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s (IC’s) to penetrate China’s leadership, and its failure to properly see the COVID-19 pandemic is rooted in a catastrophic intelligence collection failure prior to Xi’s presidency where many of the CIA’s human intelligence networks in China were compromised and eliminated.

Those efforts were detailed in 2017 by the New York Times (NYT), which said as many as a dozen U.S. sources were executed by China, with others jailed, in what represented one of the worst breaches ever of American spying networks.

ADN reported that this “significant loss of its China networks likely also severely hindered the CIA’s ability to monitor developments in Wuhan prior to and during the COVID outbreak in 2019.”

Business Insider also noted that the loss was far worse than the NYT reported:

About 30 spies were reportedly executed, though some intelligence officials told Foreign Policy that 30 was a low estimate. The US officials were reportedly “shell-shocked” by the speed and accuracy of Chinese counterintelligence, and rescue operations were organized to evacuate their sources.

Still, as Bloomberg notes: “Despite China’s history as a ‘hard target’ for the CIA to penetrate, the agency exists precisely to overcome such challenges, whether it’s deciphering the leadership of al-Qaeda or Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea.” Bloomberg adds:

…the agency was capable of providing significant insights into the upper reaches of the Chinese political system as recently as a decade ago, one former intelligence official said. Its ability to penetrate the Chinese leadership has ebbed and flowed over time, but the agency’s current ability to do so is more limited, the person said. 

As Team Biden supposedly shifts attention to countering China, CIA Director Bill Burns last month announced the creation of a China Mission Center (CMC) to focus the agency on “an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”

Unfortunately, some of the people interviewed by Bloomberg said that this effort is more symbolic than substantive and needs to be backed up by increases in spending and staffing to have credibility. Something not yet seen.

Will Biden do more than provide window dressing to these serious problems? Or will he remain in the dark on China? That’s the big question. ADN

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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