When he created the China Mission Center a few months back, CIA Director William Burns said the goal was to “strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century — an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”
The Biden administration is absolutely right to be focused on China, which is militarizing the South China Sea, conducting provocative military drills threatening Taiwan’s territorial integrity, counterfeiting U.S. products, stealing U.S. intellectual property, using its “Belt and Road” initiative as cover for drowning developing countries in debt, and ruthlessly expanding its economic throw weight, military power and political influence from Asia to Africa with its full-throttled police state espionage.
But the CIA is a global intelligence service, which is charged with recruiting spies, stealing secrets and producing analysis on a dizzying array of other wickedly complex threats to our national security, including weapons proliferation, Iran, Russia, North Korea and transnational terrorism.
On any given day, any one of those threats, not China, can be the one that has our homeland in its crosshairs.
While elected officials often train their sights capriciously from one area of focus to another, the CIA must simultaneously and continuously track all threats across the globe. Consider, for example, the Bush administration’s shift to Iraq in 2003 before the mission in Afghanistan was complete or how former President Barack Obama criticized Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012 for holding a “Cold War” mindset when Mr. Romney rightly emphasized Russia was more often a contributor — and not a solution — to many of the major global problems we face.
The Biden administration wanted a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, but President Vladimir Putin instead started the most devastating war in Europe since WWII. Russia remains a global intelligence threat, with a long history of cloak-and-dagger espionage aimed at the U.S. and support for anti-U.S. allies such as Iran and Syria.
And terrorism, not China, is still the national security threat with the shortest fuse. It’s a threat we ignore at our peril.
CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp rightly emphasized that “even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges such as that posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, the CIA will continue to track terrorist threats globally and work with partners to counter them.”
The Taliban’s celebration of its first year in power, coming on the heels of the U.S. successful targeting of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a reminder that Afghanistan is a failed terrorist state with wide swaths of ungoverned space that offer sanctuary for the Islamic State and al Qaeda terrorists. Without an official presence in the country, the CIA mission to detect and preempt threats from Afghanistan has grown exponentially more challenging.
The strike on al-Zawahiri, as great a counterterrorism success as it was, should not lull us into a false sense of security about our capability to collect intelligence on radical Islamist terror networks and foil their plots. Without our most effective ally in the region, the former government of Afghanistan, the CIA will be forced to devote more resources than ever to collecting intelligence in the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
But there are some silver linings here, as well as critical policy measures our elected leaders should implement.
First, recruiting human intelligence sources is relatively inexpensive, especially in comparison to the cost of the munitions and military equipment required for the Afghanistan mission.
Second, the CIA officers are not single-threaded. They are focused worldwide on multiple hard targets, including Iranians, Russians and Chinese, who themselves are present in the Middle East and South Asian conflict zones where terrorists operate. CIA officers with the best training in operational tradecraft, language skills and cross-cultural awareness are uniquely qualified to conduct these hard-target operations both unilaterally and with our international partners.
Third, counterterrorism operations since the Sept. 11 attacks tested some of the most promising CIA officers in a crucible, helping to fashion them into some of the agency’s best leaders today.
The CIA can — and should be expected to — do it all. Where resources are stretched, the answer is not to treat the agency’s mission as a zero-sum game, sacrificing coverage on one priority in favor of another. Instead, Congress must provide the oversight and funding needed to ensure the CIA can keep our nation safe, especially from those who do not always draw the immediate attention of our elected officials.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018.