CIA Director William Burns announced a series of organizational changes intended to hone the agency’s focus on key national security challenges, including the launch of two new mission centers, one focused on China and another dedicated to transnational and technological threats.
The China Mission Center “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government,” Burns said in a statement on Thursday.
The Transnational and Technology Mission Center will focus on foreign technological development alongside issues like climate change and global health, the CIA said in a press release detailing the changes.
Apart from the new mission centers, the agency will also establish a new chief technology officer position and launch a “Technology Fellows” program to bring in specialized talent. It also said that its recruitment and onboarding process would be significantly streamlined. The reorganization is based on four reviews Burns initiated soon after taking office.
“Throughout our history, CIA has stepped up to meet whatever challenges com our way,” Burns said, “and now facing our toughest geopolitical test in a new era of great power rivalry, CIA will be at the forefront of this effort.”
“There’s no doubt we have the talent for the job,” he said. “And with the right approach, and the right structure in place, I know we’ll help ensure American leadership and American success on the global stage for decades to come.”
Burns has consistently identified China as an unparalleled challenger, and vowed to bring an “intensified focus” on competition with Beijing at his February confirmation hearing. President Biden has said the U.S., while not seeking a “new Cold War,” will confront China’s military, economic and technological ambitions and seek to counter its autocratic influence.
A bipartisan report issued last year by the House Intelligence Committee said China’s technological advances in particular threatened to erode the U.S.’ advantage, and it urged intelligence agencies to immediately “realign” resources dedicated to competition with Beijing.
“I think Director Burns made exactly the right set of moves here,” said Michael Morell, who served as the agency’s deputy director and is a CBS senior national security contributor. “They sharpen the existing focus on China and create a new focus on technology.”
“Of the two,” Morell said, “technology is the biggest area for growth because it’s evolving the fastest – and because the agency has a long way to go.” He said the CIA would not only need to better understand foreign technology developments, but also to use emerging technologies to enhance its own operational and analytic missions, all while protecting itself from advances used by adversaries to undercut U.S. intelligence efforts.
Current and former intelligence officials have acknowledged that new technologies have profoundly complicated the work of American spy agencies, whose operatives must now contend with near-ubiquitous surveillance, increasingly sophisticated facial recognition and biometric tracking tools, and advances fueled by artificial intelligence and machine learning. Key challengers like Russia and China have aggressively used new technologies to undermine intelligence operations worldwide, including by identifying and tracking intelligence officers and their assets.
Last month, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said at the annual Intelligence and National Security Alliance summit that the agency was already grappling with obstacles posed by ubiquitous surveillance.
“That is a problem that we confront and our colleagues confront in many places around the world,” Cohen said, calling it an “enormous challenge.”
“The answer to that is not to pretend we can roll back the clock 30 years,” he said. “We are, frankly, embracing the digital domain and…the ability to operate in environments where there is this surveillance – and to do so surreptitiously.”
Cohen will oversee the implementation of the new changes, the CIA said.
There are currently about a dozen existing mission centers at the CIA, whose organizational structure was significantly revised in 2015 by former director John Brennan. Two of them – the Iran and North Korea mission centers, both established more recently by former director Mike Pompeo – will be reabsorbed into regional centers focused on the Middle East and East Asia.
Burns has said he’s not trying to “reinvent the wheel” in his reorganization, rather to make “smart adjustments” based fundamentally on the Brennan-era framework.
In unveiling the changes, Burns said the CIA would continue to focus “sharply” on other threats, including Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as combatting terrorism.
A source familiar with his thinking said the China Mission Center is, by design, now the only single-country mission center at the agency, highlighting its central importance to CIA’s work.