As U.S. spies look to the future, one target stands out: China When current and former U.S. intelligence officials gathered at a conference in Sea Island, Ga., there was a clear message — a pivot to China is already underway.

As U.S. spies look to the future, one target stands out: China

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In the wake of President Biden's virtual summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, we wanted to look at one part of the growing competition between the U.S. and China - the intelligence battle. It is rare for U.S. spies to gather at a conference and speak openly about national security threats like China, but they did just that quite recently at a resort in Sea Island, Ga. NPR's Greg Myre was one of the few journalists at the event, known as the Cipher Brief Threat Conference.

CYNTHIA SADDY: I've got to tell you all - and I know many of you are in the same boat. It's so odd after 27 years of being in clandestine service to see your picture and your bio pop up.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: That's former CIA officer Cynthia Saddy speaking to a ballroom filled with both current and former intelligence officials. One ex-CIA director, Michael Hayden, shared his advice to the current CIA chief William Burns.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: And I said, first of all, you got to go to China. And then second of all, you've got to go to China. And the third one was, you've got to go to China. And he said, OK, I got it.

MYRE: The U.S. intelligence community focused on the Russians for decades. Then the priority was Middle East terrorism. Now a new era is underway.

SUE GORDON: I call this entering the third epic of intelligence.

MYRE: Sue Gordon spent four decades in the intelligence community. She briefed five presidents. Gordon held a series of senior jobs before stepping down two years ago as deputy director of National Intelligence.

GORDON: Weirdly, we kind of woke up out of our counterterrorism stupor to realize that the world had become digital and that we hadn't been focusing on all the things we needed to. The rise of China happened during those years, and now you see us talking about great power competition.

MYRE: CIA director Burns has embraced this advice. After reviewing the CIA's priorities, his first big move was to establish a China Mission Center in order to focus more on the principal U.S. competitor. The CIA's No. 2 official, David Cohen, says this means more resources will be devoted to China. The different parts of the agency will closely coordinate their work on China, and Burns will host a weekly meeting devoted entirely to China.

DAVID COHEN: What we've come to realize is that we need to really enhance and synchronize our efforts around China.

MYRE: This comes as U.S.-China competition is heating up. The U.S. intelligence community wants to know what Chinese leader Xi Jinping is thinking about Taiwan as tensions escalate. And China's recent test of a hypersonic missile seem to catch the U.S. by surprise. Then there's the ongoing race for cutting-edge technologies, like artificial intelligence. Critics say this constant drumbeat of warnings about China can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result could be inflame tensions with Beijing, while the U.S. may overlook other potential flashpoints, from Russia to Iran to North Korea. David Cohen had a response to this.

COHEN: I will hasten to add that we are the Central Intelligence Agency. We are not the China intelligence agency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I was really...

MYRE: Still, the conference was a vivid demonstration of how the U.S. intelligence community is making a pivot to China. Officials say that no country, not even the Soviet Union at its peak, spied on the U.S. in such a comprehensive way as China does now. Larry Pfeiffer is a former CIA chief of staff.

LARRY PFEIFFER: They've got more people than we could ever dream of having. They're going to collect as much data if not all the data they can get, put it in a big data pool and use artificial intelligence, use machine processing to then, you know, exquisitely target us. I mean, it is scary.

MYRE: China goes after traditional spying targets, like government and military secrets. But Beijing is after much, much more. It has pursued an unprecedented effort to collect valuable technology from U.S. companies, universities and research labs. Anna Puglisi is a former intelligence official who focused on China. She's now at Georgetown University and says to protect itself, the U.S. faces a major challenge.

ANNA PUGLISI: Our system is really set up to fight a nation-state, focuses on things that are illegal, things that are a direct military application in what we're seeing now, and especially the focus in academia, in commerce. It's a very, very different threat than we had in the past.

MYRE: Bill Evanina led many government investigations into the theft of intellectual property. He says the U.S. should keep bringing in top flight students from China and elsewhere. But he adds, universities need to be aware of the risk. After leaving government this year, he set up a company that helps colleges protect their most valuable technology in the STEM fields.

BILL EVANINA: It's the small proportion amount of people that we have to be concerned about, the post-graduate STEM world, where they're looking to obtain research and intelligence that's going to help garner their military and academic world. And I think that awareness could help academia and research and development do self-compliance.

MYRE: Of course, the U.S. also aggressively spies on China. But China is a notoriously hard target and is getting harder with its sweeping surveillance carried out by the Ministry of State Security. Again, the CIA's David Cohen.

COHEN: The way that we operated, you know, 25 years ago, you know, with alias, stocks and hard copy - you could, you know, pick up a passport and show up somewhere and be someone completely - that is harder to do, you know, whether it's China or Russia or any number of countries.

MYRE: China uncovered many spies working for the U.S. a decade ago, setting back American intelligence operations. Paul Kolbe is a former CIA officer who now runs the intelligence project at Harvard. He says spying on China takes time and patience.

PAUL KOLBE: You can't flip a switch and suddenly have a stable of Chinese assets, great penetrations of the inner sanctums of government. You have to develop officers who know the language, culture and that can establish deep relationships of trust that are required to do agent operations.

MYRE: It won't be easy to recruit and train these new officers. The ideal candidate would be a fluent Mandarin speaker with a degree in artificial intelligence and a willingness to work for a government salary.

CYNTHIA STRAND: So that is quite a unicorn, right? A person who speaks the language understands the culture, has a deep technical competency as well. It's not easy, but they're out there.

MYRE: Cynthia Strand retired last year after 35 years at the CIA. She's now at a private company called Primer. It works closely with the intelligence community. Using artificial intelligence, Primer's computers sort through massive amounts of data, find specific information and then translate it from, say, Mandarin to English.

STRAND: Imagine if you had a large cadre of good interns, hard workers, diligent. You want to put them on the tasks that are rote, that are repeatable, where they can cut their teeth and learn and leave the higher thought work to people who have been trained and practicing for a long time.

MYRE: Strand says human intelligence remains critical, but technology keeps leaping forward.

STRAND: No one, no human being, no matter how exceptional they are, can consume and make sense of the volumes of data that are available. Machines can do that beautifully.

MYRE: It's just one example, she says, of how technology is redefining spycraft for a new era, an era that's here to stay. Greg Myre, NPR News, Sea Island, Ga.


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