When Vice President Joseph R. Biden met a group of five Chinese "think tank" experts in Beijing on Aug. 20, the meeting at the U.S. Embassy was billed in his official schedule as simply a round-table discussion with academics.
But a recent CIA report reveals the vice president was one of a long list of current and former U.S. and foreign officials who exchanged information with Cui Liru, one of the five experts identified as a longtime Ministry of State Security (MSS) intelligence officer working undercover as the head of China's most important intelligence-analysis group.
Mr. Cui is head of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, known as CICIR (pronounced "kicker"). CICIR has a long history of supplying information to the CIA through agency-paid U.S. consultants who are dispatched yearly to CICIR's offices in Beijing for discussions, according to U.S. officials.
Some of CICIR's disinformation designed to influence U.S. policies is said to have shown up in some agency intelligence products, according to officials familiar with the reports.
CICIR experts also were quoted frequently in leaked U.S. Embassy cables reporting from China as "academics." Not all of the more than 100 cables mentioning the group, however, identify the institute as "MSS-affiliated."
A spokesmen for Mr. Biden and Wang Baodong, a Chinese Embassy spokesman, did not respond to email requests for comment.
Report shows intel link
The new report by the Open Source Center at CIA headquarters states that CICIR is so close to the ruling Chinese Communist Party that it is reported to be the Eighth Bureau of the Ministry of State Security, the notorious Chinese equivalent to the Soviet KGB political police and intelligence service.
"CICIR has provided intelligence collection support to the MSS and the Foreign Affairs Leading Group (FALG), the [Communist Party of China's] top foreign-policy body," the Aug. 25 report says.
The intelligence organ played a major role in providing analysis for communist leaders on the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East since late 2010 and also recently set up a "terrorism research" center.
However, most of CICIR's work involves spying on the United States and providing analysis, some of it secret. Charts in the report show that about 60 percent of CICIR's research and publication efforts involve the United States.
In addition to publishing two journals and numerous books, the institute also publishes two "restricted-access" reports for Chinese civilian and military leaders.
Topics include U.S. policy on Taiwan, Obama administration cybersecurity strategy and U.S. changes in military deployments in the Persian Gulf.
The 34-page report includes a listing, gathered from CICIR's website, of numerous current and former officials and with whom they met. Most included meetings with Mr. Cui.
A brief biography in the report states that Mr. Cui has been CICIR president since 2005. A notable previous assignment included a stint in New York as first secretary at China's United Nations mission, a position that specialists on China say is normally reserved for MSS officers.
The report says most CICIR officials, including Mr. Cui and Yuan Peng, its American studies director, either taught or studied at the University of International Relations, which is closely linked to CICIR. The university was set up in 1964 to "train intelligence personnel for the [Communist Party] Investigation Department and (undercover) at Xinhua News Agency."
The report quotes David Shambaugh, a George Washington University China specialist, as stating that CICIR's leadership "all share lengthy and shadowy careers in the intelligence service."
The report states that CICIR's affiliation with MSS is rarely acknowledged in the state-run press. One exception was a Xinhua journal called Liaowang that reported in 2009 that the institute is subordinate to MSS.
Hong Kong press reports quoted by the CIA, however, provide other details of CICIR's intelligence work, including its role as the intelligence-analysis branch of MSS.
Hong Kong's Cheng Ming reported in 1995 that CICIR worked with MSS in comparing and verifying the authenticity of intelligence information obtained from secret channels with open-source materials compiled by CICIR before submitting intelligence to senior Chinese Communist Party Politburo members.
The report listed its missions as collecting open-source information from major news agencies, newspapers and magazines globally, translating articles for MSS, and arranging subscriptions for major English-language newspapers for the foreign-affairs secretaries of Politburo members.
"I don't think American universities or think tanks take CICIR's intelligence-collection or disinformation tasks seriously," said John Tkacik, a former State Department intelligence official.
"Instead, they take the views of CICIR's researchers at face value without attempting to sort out the MSS agenda. CICIR makes a point of giving off-the-record insights to foreign academics and journalists in order to shape foreign perceptions of Chinese international policy, especially Chinese support of North Korea, Iran, Syria, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Sudan."
The institute's researchers overseas, including most "former CICIR" scholars, also are given intelligence-collection duties that include clandestine collection, Mr. Tkacik said.
An example of how CICIR influences U.S. policy can be seen in a classified State Department cable from Dec. 3, 2009, that quotes CICIR Vice President Yang Mingjie speaking about the Pentagon's nuclear-posture review.
Mr. Yang told U.S. Embassy officials that if the Pentagon made "significant" nuclear cuts, China would "feel increased pressure" to be more open about its nuclear buildup and it would "influence" China to slow or stop its nuclear modernization, ideas that analysts say likely would influence Obama administration policymakers to favor nuclear-weapons cutbacks.
Huntsman, officials met often
The CIA report lists numerous prominent officials and experts who met with senior CICIR officials.
U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. met with Mr. Cui and CICIR Vice President Wang Zaiban on March 25, a little more than a month before he stepped down, to discuss "the current international situation," the report says.
U.S. Embassy Minister Robert Wang also met Mr. Cui in March to discuss "bilateral cooperation."
Other key U.S. officials who held talks with CICIR officials include Phillip Saunders of the National Defense University and David Gompert, former acting director of national intelligence, who met Mr. Cui on Dec. 9, 2010, to discuss U.S.-China strategic relations, space and cybersecurity issues.
Also on the list is Thomas Barnett, a Naval War College professor who met with CICIR with the head of the pro-China group America-China Partnership Foundation.
Defense think-tank contractor officials Murray Scot Tanner and Ken Gause from the Center for Naval Analysis also met CICIR officials.
Ross Campbell, an economic officer at the State Department's Russian Affairs office, met CICIR's Russian studies director, Feng Yujun, in May.
Pro-China academic and former U.S. official Charles W. Freeman visited CICIR in November.
Former President Jimmy Carter stopped by the CICIR offices in May, along with former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and former Irish President Mary Robinson.
In the past year, other visitors to CICIR included Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials from Canada, Iran, India, Singapore, South Korea, North Korea, Cuba, Australia, Japan, Poland, Netherlands, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Denmark, Russia, and Uzbekistan.
Larry Wortzel, a former U.S. military intelligence officer, said he is less concerned about CICIR's intelligence activities.
"They are professional about what they do. They understand we need info on our side, and they need info on theirs. So when you put them against the Russians, the Indians, the Laotians, the Cambodians, or the Vietnamese, they are easier to work with," Mr. Wortzel said, noting that CICIR officials "don't talk about internal matters."
"They will give very good background information and explain the dynamics behind party decisions," Mr. Wortzel said.
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