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With the China Mission Center, the CIA refocuses on the changing world stage

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The CIA is turning its attention to China. For the past two decades, the agency's top priorities were the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with terrorism threats throughout the Middle East. Now, CIA Director William Burns is making no secret of the fact that the agency is going to put more money and resources into countering the threat from China.

NPR's Greg Myre covers the CIA and he's here this morning. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So Greg, the CIA doesn't really announce things. So what's this all about?

MYRE: Yeah, sort of unusual for them to be so public about it. But it's really this formal recognition that China cuts across many, many key issues - national security in Asia, from Taiwan to North Korea, a battle globally for political influence and economic competition and a battle for next-generation technologies. All of these things involve China. It also reflects President Biden's effort to pivot to Asia, that Asia in general and China in particular are going to be the center of gravity for so many important developments in the 21st century.

And it doesn't come out of the blue. Back in July, NPR interviewed William Burns, and he suggested something like this was on the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILLIAM BURNS: The first thing I'd stress as you look at the CIA's role, you know, over the next decade - you know, we're no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, especially with the rise of China.

MARTIN: And the public nature of this announcement, Greg - I mean, they clearly want China to know that they're - that they've got their eyes trained on them.

MYRE: Oh, absolutely. Yes. That's clearly behind the public announcement. Yes.

MARTIN: So as part of this structure, Burns announced the creation of the so-called mission center at CIA headquarters. What's that going to look like?

MYRE: So it's something they'll put at the CIA headquarters outside Washington. And it means more staff and resources, and specifically, they'll have to recruit more Mandarin speakers - people who are fluent on Chinese issues, from its economy to its technology development.

And now here's the really hard part, though. It means a bigger China operation out in the field. This could mean sending more U.S. officers abroad to China if possible and elsewhere in Asia and to recruit people that are willing to work with the U.S. and spy on China. And I really can't emphasize this enough. China is a very hard target for spies. A decade ago, China uncovered and dismantled a big part of the CIA's network there. Its vast surveillance web has only become tighter since then. And William Burns spoke about this as well in his interview with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURNS: We innovate in how we deal with phenomena like ubiquitous technical surveillance, which is basically what happens when you have smart cities and, you know, very advanced capabilities on the part of the Chinese Intelligence Service to make it much more complicated to do espionage overseas.

MARTIN: So China obviously was the headline out of the director's announcement. But there was other news as well, right? What more do you have to say?

MYRE: Right. He wants the CIA to be more attuned to a wider range of threats, and the best example here is the coronavirus - a pandemic that upended the entire world, and yet it hasn't been the kind of threat that the CIA has monitored very aggressively in the past. So he's created another mission center, and this one has the very unwieldy name of the Transnational and Technology Mission Center.

MARTIN: So what happens, Greg, to all the people they recruited for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader terrorism mission? I mean, all those Arabic and Farsi speakers, all those experts - what happens to them?

MYRE: Right. Well, they'll have to see if there can be a transition, if they can move on to a different part of the agency. But it is a big change to go from people who are expert in the Middle East to people who are expert in China.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Myre covers the CIA and the broader intelligence community. Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.