U.S. at Risk of Being Outpaced by China, a New Intel Committee Report Finds

An assessment by the House Intelligence Committee says the United States will be hard-pressed to meet China’s multidimensional challenge if it stays in a counterterrorism mindset.

Paramilitary police officers wear face masks and goggles amid COVID-19 concerns as they march outside the Forbidden City, the former palace of China's emperors, in Beijing on May 1.
Paramilitary police officers wear face masks and goggles amid COVID-19 concerns as they march outside the Forbidden City, the former palace of China's emperors, in Beijing on May 1. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Unless the U.S. intelligence community is overhauled to meet the complex threat posed by China, the United States is at risk of being unable to protect the nation’s health and security and compete with Beijing on the world stage, according to a new report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee.

The stark assessment comes amid a wider rebalancing of U.S. national security priorities to contend with renewed great-power competition with Russia and China, as well as ongoing threats from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. But the report also stressed the need for U.S. intelligence officials to become more adept at analyzing nonmilitary threats, such as health, the economy, and climate change.

“The Committee’s central finding of this report is that the United States’ intelligence community has not sufficiently adapted to a changing geopolitical and technological environment increasingly shaped by a rising China and the growing importance of interlocking non-military transnational threats, such as global health, economic security, and climate change,” the committee stated in the report. 

The committee began its review of U.S. intelligence capabilities with regards to China last spring out of concerns that the United States’ laser focus on counterterrorism after 9/11 had let other intelligence capabilities atrophy and amid growing concerns that China poses a “unique and growing strategic challenge to U.S. national security.” 

“After 9/11, we reoriented towards a mission to protect the homeland and were very successful. But after two decades, the [intelligence community’s] capacity to address hard targets like China has waned,” said committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff. “Absent a significant and immediate reprioritization and realignment of resources, we will be ill-prepared to compete with China—diplomatically, economically, and militarily—on the global stage for decades to come.”

The committee’s review found that intelligence agencies have not paid sufficient attention to “soft” threats such as infectious diseases and climate change and the knock-on economic effects that could undermine U.S. national security. 

“COVID-19 cropped up as a very real world example while we were drafting and finalizing this report. At least for us it really does crystallize some of the nontraditional threats that can emanate out of China,” said a Democratic intelligence committee official, speaking on background. 

This year, the committee began another assessment looking specifically at how the intelligence community responded to the emergence of COVID-19. One problem: The intelligence community is biased toward using clandestine information, while the monitoring of pandemics and other soft threats is well suited to open-source analysis. “There’s going to need to be somewhat of a cultural shift there,” a second committee official said. 

Last year, the intelligence committee held a hearing on the national security implications of climate change, a sign of growing concern among lawmakers—and plenty of former military leaders—over the security risks of famine, mass migration, and resource competition. “These are things that we’re going to have to look at in far greater effort over the next few years,” the second official said. 

Another important finding in the report: China’s threat is multidimensional, using industrial espionage, predatory trade and lending practices, and subtle overseas influence operations. That requires an intelligence community that widens its lens beyond defense capabilities and can support the work of other agencies in the federal government involved in health monitoring, trade negotiations, or immigration policy, the report found. It also recommended nurturing a future generation of China experts with expertise in public health, economics, and technology.

“The stakes are enormous. We must do everything possible to accurately predict and characterize Beijing’s intent, or we will continue to struggle to understand how and why the leadership of the [Chinese Communist Party] makes decisions and fail to respond effectively,” Schiff said. 

The 37-page report released Wednesday is an executive summary of the full, 200-plus-page report, which contains more than 100 classified recommendations. The report’s conclusions are based on committee staff reviews of thousands of analytical assessments, hundreds of hours of interviews with intelligence officers, and visits to facilities run by the more than dozen agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. 

The United States’ intelligence-gathering capabilities in China were dealt a series of punishing blows starting in 2010, as Beijing systematically killed or imprisoned almost two dozen CIA sources in the country in what current and former U.S. officials told the New York Times was one of the worst intelligence breaches in decades. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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