A commission of outside experts has concluded that CIA reporting on China is biased and slanted toward a benign view of the emerging communist power.
Numerous classified intelligence reports on China, including those on Chinese military and security issues, were reviewed by a 12-member commission and found to be flawed, according to U.S. government officials and outside experts close to the panel.
The commission concluded in a final report that China-related CIA intelligence reports and programs suffered from an “institutional predisposition” to play down or misinterpret national security problems posed by Beijing’s communist regime.
The commission also said CIA analysts had “overreached” in making many incorrect or misleading assessments about China’s military and political activities.
The conclusions of the commission are contained in a classified report. The commission was headed by retired Army Gen. John Tilelli, a former commander of U.S. forces in Korea.
“There were numerous instances where [CIA analysts] just missed it,” said one official who has read the report.
The commission included several academics such as Harvard University professor Stephen Rosen, Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg and University of Pennsylvania professor Arthur Waldron, as well as former Ambassador to China James Lilley. Peter Rodman, a current nominee for assistant defense secretary also took part, as did retired Army Col. Larry Wortzel, a former attache in China who is currently with the Heritage Foundation.
The panel met three times with CIA Director George J. Tenet. CIA sources said Mr. Tenet tried unsuccessfully to persuade the commission to soften its findings, arguing that its findings would fuel critics of the agency.
One of those critics is Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who took the lead in pushing for the CIA to form the “competitive analysis” commission.
Mr. Shelby said in an interview that the CIA has “not viewed China in a realistic way.”
“They have tried to look the other way when China, in my opinion, may be moving toward a belligerent stand, if not attitude,” Mr. Shelby said. “They are always looking the other way to put their spin on the U.S.-Chinese relationship, that everything is going well in the long run.
“It’s just not very real. China is, has been and I believe will be a big competitor of ours, economically, militarily, politically, in every respect. They could be our biggest adversary. They are certainly not our strategic partner as Clinton and Gore would lead you to believe.”
A Pentagon report issued in December by the Office of Net Assessment, headed by long-time defense strategist Andrew Marshall, also criticized U.S. intelligence shortfalls on China. The report said the Pentagon could not predict the outcome of a conflict between China and Taiwan because of major “intelligence gaps.”
CIA China analysts and senior officials, including Mr. Tenet, declined to be interviewed. A CIA spokesman denied that its analysts were biased and said they “call them as they see them.”
One China specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the most serious problem of the China analysts at the CIA is their failure to recognize the growing danger of a Sino-U.S. war.
“War is a come-as-you-are party, and the Chinese are thinking about that very seriously,” the specialist said. “The problem is you can’t find those guys at CIA thinking about it.”
Official statements about the possibility of military conflict between Washington and Beijing have been dismissed by senior CIA analysts as hollow rhetoric, the specialist said.
While most of the analyses reviewed by the panel are classified, some of the CIA China division’s work is public. Based on published materials and interviews with officials who have seen its classified studies, the following problems were identified to The Washington Times:
* The CIA provided poor analytical support to the White House during the recent Hainan island incident. Agency analysts failed to properly predict Beijing’s reactions in the aftermath of a collision between a U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet over the South China Sea, in which 24 American service members were held hostage on Hainan island.
* The CIA’s top analyst on Chinese foreign policy, Paul Heer, reported in the journal Foreign Affairs last year that the idea there are divisions within the Chinese leadership between hard-liners and centrists is a “false dichotomy” that is “misguided and even dangerous.”
His view reflects classified CIA analysis that came under fire from the Tilelli commission and is contrary to the widespread views within other U.S. intelligence agencies that major internal divisions do exist within Beijing’s communist regime. Mr. Heer believes “competing schools of thought coexist” within institutions and leaders.
* The CIA has failed to conduct a thorough analysis of Chinese military inroads into Latin America, despite Beijing’s recent agreement with Havana to begin upgrading military equipment to Cuba, visits by senior Chinese military leaders to the region and other activities in the hemisphere. The agency’s reporting is said to lag behind those of the U.S. Southern Command, the Pentagon’s Miami-based command responsible for Latin America.
* In response to congressional pressure for better intelligence analysis on China, the CIA intelligence directorate hired some 30 new analysts. However, those hired were required to pass a litmus test to assure they held views in tune with senior analysts who have a benign view of China.
* Sensitive intelligence reports from the CIA Directorate of Operations and the FBI were suppressed within the CIA intelligence directorate.
One U.S. intelligence official close to the CIA said the problem is that senior analysts have not done enough to foster a diversity of views on Chinese security issues.
“Their basic working assumption is that China must become a strategic partner,” this official said of the senior analysts. “Analysts are promoted who hold those views.”