Intelligence leaders outline efforts to retool spy agencies to counter China
By Bill Gertz
“When we talk about existential threats, the nuclear triad that the Russians have is credible and it’s effective, and I think the Chinese see that nuclear triad as a goal that they would like to have,” Gen. Berrier said.
Gen. Berrier made the comments during a conference Tuesday along with five other senior intelligence leaders who all said that U.S. spy agencies are retooling to confront the challenge of Communist China while continuing to support efforts against Islamic extremism. The panel offered a dramatic snapshot of the ways China‘s rise has posed new challenges for the U.S. on an increasing number of security, economic and political fronts.
Gen. Berrier said Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a three-pronged strategy of disciplining leaders of both the ruling Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army, financing the national power with the Belt and Road Initiative, and pursuing a vigorous buildup of the military.
China‘s nuclear triad includes the deployment of up to 400 new long-range missiles in silos recently disclosed in commercial satellite photos in western China. The silos will house China‘s new DF-41 missile that is expected to be armed with up to 10 warheads for each missile.
Other elements of the Chinese nuclear triad include new missile submarines and new nuclear-capable stealth bombers.
The U.S. officials appeared at the Intelligence and National Security Summit hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electrons Association International and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance at the Gaylord Hotel at National Harbor.
Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency and commander of Cyber Command, said Chinaremains a key focus of electronic spies, while threats posed by terrorists remain a priority as well. Gen. Nakasone said China in particular is engaged in influence operations aimed at creating divisions within American society and targeting efforts to battle the pandemic.
The Joint Task Force-Ares, an effort to combat Islamic extremism online, has shifted to countering cyberactivities by strategic competitors like China and Russia, he said.
Deputy CIA Director David Cohen revealed that the CIA is conducting a major review to revamp its spying efforts on China, hiring more Mandarin language speakers and moving more CIA officers closer to China.
“One of the things that we are looking to do as part of our review is to think about how we approach the China issue not specifically from the Beijing station but how we approach it globally,” Mr. Cohen said.
While rapidly hiring new CIA officers, Mr. Cohen warned that Chinese intelligence “runs people at us” and noted the need for strong counterintelligence to prevent penetrations of the agency by Chinese agents. The CIA suffered a major setback starting in 2010 when a security compromise resulted in the loss of more than two dozen recruited agents in China.
“Part of our job in bringing people on board is to ferret out folks who are not there for good and patriotic reasons,” Mr. Cohen said.
The CIA is working to improve its ability to oversee networks of spies in the digital age, when it is difficult to provide cover for agents because of what is called ubiquitous electronic surveillance.
Looking to influence
Gen. Nakasone, the NSA director and Cyber Command chief, said foreign influence operations expanded beyond the Russians to include Chinese, Iranians and other adversaries.
China has sought to disrupt U.S. efforts to counter the COVID-19 pandemic by influencing public views of vaccines, Gen. Nakasone said. China also is targeting Australia with negative influence operations, he said.
“From our adversaries’ perspective, [influence operations] are cheap, easy and effective,” the general said.
Asked if the U.S. government is improving its ability to blunt such interference, Gen. Nakasone said, “Yes, we’re better at it not only for elections, but also better at recognizing other different spheres when it comes up.”
A number of unspecified “proxies” for foreign nations are preparing to intervene in the 2022 elections, he noted.
“The cast of characters is still to be developed and so we’re still watching that very carefully,” Gen. Nakasone said.
Deputy FBI Director Paul Abbate said Russian government-linked cyberattacks, including ransomware operations, have shown no sign of decreasing despite the Biden administration’s direct appeals to Moscow.
“Based on what we’ve seen, there is no indication that the Russian government has taken action to crack down on ransomware actors that are operating in the permissive environment that they’ve created there,” Mr. Abbate said.
Chris Scolese, director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates satellite systems, said Chinaposes a significant threat to space assets.
“China clearly wants to be the leader in space,” Mr. Scolese said. “And they want to make sure that they erode our capabilities up there.”
China has ground-launched anti-satellite missiles as well as space-based weapons that can disarm satellites or hamper their operations, he said. The NRO is working with the Pentagon’s new Space Command to detect and counter space threats.
Advanced technology and new space architectures are among the ways of dealing with space threats. “We have to change our architecture so that it’s much more resilient to attack,” Mr. Scolese said.
One way of reducing the threat is to increase the number of satellites and support systems to make it more difficult for the Chinese to target them.
NRO officials are working with Space Command and American allies to promote norms of space operations that would be similar to those for maritime operations outlined in the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Treaty. The agency is also developing tactics and procedures for “if things get hot … we all know how to operate, what we’re going to protect and how we’re going to protect it,” Mr. Scolese said.
Army Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland, associate director of operations for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which conducts imagery spying, said China is seeking to surpass the United States by deploying its own spy satellites.
“In many ways, [the Chinese] have the ability now to do to us what we have been doing for quite a while, the ability to have very precise timing and targeting,” Gen. Cleveland said, noting China now is also observing U.S. military activities from space.
The NGA, as the imagery agency is called, is working to increase its ability to conduct imagery spying and analysis on China and its activities, he said.
Both Gen. Berrier and Mr. Cohen said the defeat of the American-backed government in Afghanistan has increased the danger that the al Qaeda terrorist group will launch another attack on the United States very quickly, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said Tuesday.
“The current assessment conservatively is one to two years for al Qaeda to build some capability to at least threaten the homeland,” said Gen. Berrier.
The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan last month in the face of a lightning Taliban offensive reduced the ability of the military and intelligence agencies to monitor terrorists in Afghanistan. Gen. Berrier said his agency is seeking ways to regain access into Afghanistan and is focusing on the problem of terrorist threats through a DIAcounterterrorism center.
Mr. Cohen agreed that the al Qaeda threat is increasing and that the group will be capable of new attacks within a couple of years.
“We are already beginning to see some of the indications of some potential movement of al Qaeda to Afghanistan,” Mr. Cohen said. “But it’s early days and we will keep a very close eye on that.”
Terror attacks could also be carried out in that time frame by the Afghan-based Islamic State offshoot known as the Islamic State-Khorasan, Mr. Cohen said. Both groups were already operating inside Afghanistan before the collapse of the 300,000-troop Afghan military.
The decision to pull American and allied troops out of Afghanistan also impacted the CIA, Mr. Cohen said, noting the spy agency’s capability in Afghanistan “is not what it was six months ago, or a year ago.”
But he also noted that the CIA has extensive experience gathering intelligence in locations that are difficult to access and is capable of intelligence work with or without a physical presence on the ground, Mr. Cohen said.
Regarding invisible beam attacks on American diplomats and intelligence personnel around the world, Mr. Cohen, the deputy CIA director, said the agency is close to identifying the source of the attacks that have impacted between 200 officials.
“We’re not close enough to make the sort of analytical judgment people are waiting for,” he said of the so-called Havana Syndrome. “We’ll get there.”