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.
Dozens of Chinese books on virtually any topic of intelligence interest are published each year; however, only a small portion are ever collected or translated. One of the few intelligence systems worldwide to approach the problem systematically is Taiwan’s, which benefits from not needing translation. The Taiwanese buy up books—including restricted and classified materials—distribute them internally, and sell them commercially. Analysts do not need to become full-fledged collectors or participate in the operational activity to collect sensitive books from across China. The point is that there are plenty of useful materials that can be acquired without analysts becoming case officers and without waiting around—provided there is support to turn them loose.
The IC could even experiment with ideas like non-official cover (NOC) analysts operating away outside the Beltway in relevant parts of the world. Small groups of young and mid-level analysts could operate effectively in a team selling their expertise while filing useful reports for headquarters. This would fill one of the gaps in the IC collection posture, because case officers exist to recruit and handle clandestine sources. Contrary to critiques of the CIA’s performance on the Iranian Revolution, case officers were not there taking in the lay of the land and reporting political atmospherics. Using groups of analysts to do the kind of interviews that are a normal part of research could help fill this gap in collection, especially given the reported problems with the State Department’s efforts.
Knowing what could be available and how to get it are important parts of being an expert in an intelligence context. If an analyst is asking a policymaker to make a decision based on the world according to intelligence, the policymaker should be able to ask and receive an answer to the question of whether the analyst would know if anything changed.
A perennial complaint about the IC, especially CIA, is that the bureaucracy rewards analytic generalists that bounce from crisis to hotspot to crisis again. For example, former CIA analyst Richard Russell decried analysts who are not experts. This critique probably is unfair as the distinction between generalists and regional specialists is really that one is expert in U.S. national security processes and the other is expert in a particular country or region. The real difference between the two is that generalists cannot create new knowledge. One area specialist, however, can support the functioning of many generalists sent out to brief, write the talking points, or otherwise support decision making. I would amend Michael Morell’s comment to read “Anyone can brief who’s up and who’s down in the Chinese Communist Party; not anyone can find out why and why it matters.”
The IC cannot hire experts straight out of undergraduate and graduate programs, nor will analysts become experts simply by reading the daily feed of intelligence reports, diplomatic cables, and signals intercepts. The world is much bigger than the U.S. Government’s contact with it; always has been, always will. The background and contextual knowledge that places and gives significance to more operational, policy-oriented information arriving through intelligence channels cannot be learned at a desk.
When the State Department decided to create a cadre of Soviet specialists in the 1920s, years before U.S. diplomatic recognition of Lenin and Stalin’s Russia, young Foreign Service officers like Chuck Bohlen and George Kennan spent three years at European universities learning Russian and then studying Russian history, literature, and politics the way Russians learned their culture. Foreign Service officers and intelligence case officers might get two years to focus on language learning; however, analysts are not given such opportunities and their education is largely assumed to be complete by the time they join the IC. Two or three years at a foreign university, especially ones in the Sinosphere like University of Hong Kong, National University of Singapore, or perhaps even within China, would now be unheard of. Yet, promoting this kind of continuing education abroad would be useful. This should be a normal part of a career, not a reward as it and language training so often are treated by management.
Although CIA’s Senior Analytic Service and similar initiatives are touted as ways to preserve analytic expertise, these programs protect the status quo’s ad hoc building of expertise. They are mid- and late-career positions rather than the result of a deliberate process and a coherent set of expectations. For the IC, expertise on a target country is much more than a Ph.D., so the U.S. Government cannot just outsource the expenditure to universities.
Problems with expertise-building on China in the U.S. Government are not a new issue. In February 1977, the National Security Council staffer on China and one of the leading China analysts of his generation, Michel Oksenberg, wrote a memo to Zbigniew Brzezinski expressing concern at the quality and future of China analysis across the government. Oksenberg presented the problem as how to cultivate talent so that in fifteen to twenty years down the road, there would be at least a few dozen top-flight specialists. Unfortunately, Oksenberg probably had more success trying to resolve this dilemma from outside government on his own initiative than did the U.S. Government, leaving the status quo to haunt us today.
These two main thrusts—encouraging proactive analysis and deliberately building regional expertise—require a fundamental change in the attitude about analytic production. Most analysts are evaluated on the basis of “what have you done for the office lately,” meaning that any time away from the production line is not a worthwhile use of time. If a few weeks or months away from the desk—even say drafting a national intelligence estimate for the National Intelligence Council—is not valued, then no meaningful change can take place. With more analysts than ever working narrower and narrower accounts so that individual development can be assessed, pulling analysts away from the line to pursue further education, deep research, and open source collection seems a good way to broaden analysts’ coverage and expertise for the IC’s long-term benefit.
Favoring the status quo in U.S. intelligence based on the misguided notion that anyone can analyze China is precisely the kind of attitude that feeds the perpetual and ill-considered reform mantra “intelligence reform good, CIA bad.” The past is past, and China looms large in the future. Whether gearing up the United States for competition or trying to find pathways to peaceful coexistence, the IC leadership and the policymakers they support need a core of strong China specialists to feed the broader government machinery.
In most ways, concerned Americans should hope the problem is with the IC and not with policymakers. Policymakers face the daunting task of understanding the world and trying to manage the challenges it presents. However, if at a basic level they misunderstand China and they have not been provided with accurate, insightful China analysis, then problems with U.S. policy run far deeper and will be much more difficult to correct. A brain can be sharpened, but there is no cure for ears that are closed.
Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and the author of the recently-published Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army.
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