The Future of U.S. Intelligence: Adapting to Deal with China

The United States needs to reevaluate the way it approaches intelligence if it is to be effective in the 21st century. 

In an April interview with Charlie Rose, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told Charlie Rose that the U.S. intelligence effort should focus on problems that only the Intelligence Community (IC) can do—and China was not one of them. Morell said “Anybody can give you an opinion of who's up and who's down in the Chinese Communist Party.” The collapse of a China policy consensus, to paraphrase a recent commentator, however, demonstrates how wrong he is that anyone can evaluate China, its politics, and its future. It is quite possible the IC is the only place where China’s veil of secrecy can be pierced and the perceptive analyst is free from retribution. But if accurately understanding Beijing and its intentions could have prevented U.S. thinking on China from arriving at this tragic juncture, then intelligence policymakers need to reconsider the continuing importance of states and what it means to be an IC expert on China.

Assessing China remains one of the critical challenges for the U.S. Intelligence Community, even as many would-be intelligence reformers condemn states to the dustbin of history and irrelevance for the future of U.S. intelligence. As critical as I am of most writing on intelligence reform, the status quo for IC analysts and their careers, at least on China, cannot continue.

The United States needs the IC’s effort on China, because of the severe limits placed upon public analysis. The vast amount of public information now available on China—sometimes including ostensibly internal-use periodicals—obscures how much important information remains out of reach to analysts reliant upon open sources and personal contacts.

Beyond unobtainable information, Beijing also evidences a willingness to punish those observers who cross the line in opening up the inner workings of the party or who criticize the regime too perceptively. The harsh hand is not always as obvious as expelling a reporter, but Chinese authorities often wait for an opportunity to do mischief, such as waiting for journalists to change jobs and require new visa arrangements. One cannot reasonably expect most China analysts to sacrifice their career for the sake of a headline or two and for the commission on an article. Perry Link famously called the situation China analysts faced as the “anaconda in the chandelier,” and, one observer controversially asked “Have the China scholars all been bought?

Not anyone can analyze China accurately and effectively. So what can the IC do to update traditional approaches to all-source analysis on traditional targets, or at least the ones as critical to future U.S. security as China? The suggestions below follow two general lines. The first involves shifting analysts from passivity to activism in acquiring relevant and useful information wherever it may be. The second is cultivating regional specialists rather than the national security generalists for which the IC is now known.

One of the first steps would be pushing IC analysts from passive recipients to active seekers of information. In his memoir, The Great War of Our Time, Morell wrote that analysts sit back and wait for information to come to them and to criticize them for this is unfair. This passive approach supported by CIA’s former chief analyst presumes that collection adequately supplies analysts with materials. Though this could conceivably be the case with respect to clandestine collection like human agent reports, one experienced analyst described the relationship between analysts and collectors as “the lost relationship” because of the value to be gained in terms of how reports are issued, understanding the provenance of intelligence reporting, and the limitations of the access. Such relationships cannot be built by desk-bound analysts, but rather by analyst career tracks that involve rotations or part-time assignments with collectors as part of their development.

Few would dispute the inadequacy of the IC’s acquisition and exploitation of open sources, even though the public may no longer have access to Open Source Center translations to check for themselves. The Chinese government and military publish a voluminous amount of open source materials. As China’s recent white paper on military strategy shows, the PLA has professional characteristics and recognizes the need to communicate ideas across its ranks. For example, the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) database could offer a fantastic amount of useful periodicals going back years if readily available on desktops as many top-tier universities now offer. Additionally, CNKI does contain articles inaccessible from abroad, so the IC access to the database should include Chinese domestic access. CNKI, however, cannot be the end of such collection. Making full use of the database, however, requires time and probably is best used as part of team analytic efforts—or, perhaps, even a structured apprenticeship program.