CIA should know if China lied on Covid-19

Grant Newsham

Washington blames Beijing for the coronavirus. Beijing denies it and claims the virus was brewed up elsewhere, maybe in America. It’s a “he said, she said” sort of dispute.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has reportedly been ordered to find out where the Covid-19 virus came from and whether Chinese leaders purposely seeded the infection around the world. It is good the CIA is on the job, but shouldn’t it already know the answers? That is the CIA’s job after all – to know what’s going on in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and what President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China leadership are thinking and doing.

Presumably the CIA prioritizes China over, say, Slovenia. It could, of course, be that Langley already has the intelligence and that the Donald Trump administration is masterfully feigning ignorance. Perhaps. But there are reasons to believe that the CIA is not very good at spying. The agency’s principal duty is to obtain secrets by persuading foreigners to betray their countries or organizations for America’s interests.

This isn’t always easy. Nonetheless, it is what the CIA is supposed to do. It’s often argued – or, more accurately, used as an excuse – that China is a “hard target.” And it is. The PRC’s Ministry of State Security’s successes in rolling up CIA Chinese agent networks in recent times have been intelligence disasters for the ages. But being hard is still not much of an excuse. The intelligence targets most important to the US usually are the most difficult. Imagine an airline pilot suggesting he should not be expected to land in a 30-knot crosswind because it would be hard.

Some nationalities are recruitable by the dozen in an afternoon, with a decent lunch and a little money. Russians and Islamic terrorists? Not so easy. Chinese? Not easy but not impossible. Operating inside China is tough. But Chinese do travel overseas. And in dictatorships like the PRC one’s position and even life can be precarious. Indeed, many Chinese of means and power are looking for overseas boltholes – and places to stash their wealth and their relatives.

These are cracks for CIA officers to exploit. It takes patience and effort. But if promotion in the agency’s Directorate of Operations (which does most of the recruiting) is still based on “scalps” — regardless of whose head they come off — guess which targets get the attention? The easy ones.

And bending the rules to jump-start a career isn’t unheard of. One recipient of the agency’s top case officer award some years back offered sage advice – with a straight face – that “You should go to an agent meeting with the intelligence already written,” and “It’s okay to write what an agent would have said.” You mean … make it up?

As for fake recruitments, there probably isn’t a current or former CIA case officer alive who can’t rattle off a few examples. Another problem with the China target (and other hard ones) is language. Learning Chinese takes time and that’s considered “dead time” the way promotion boards look at it. Best to head off to Africa and rack up some easy scalps.

Adding to the spying challenge, after 9/11 the CIA got into paramilitary operations big time. That’s a lot easier than pursuing and convincing”hard targets” to give you information. Paramilitary work is, moreover, a lot of fun — like being in the military but without most of the rules and you only do the fun stuff. No parades, no inspections, no PowerPoint torture and no seminars on sexual harassment and welcoming transgenders into the military.

Paramilitary operations have their uses, but they are not the CIA’s core purpose. And one suspects the CIA might rely excessively on “liaison services.” That’s a handsome way of saying that instead of gathering intelligence on your own you let the local intelligence services do the work for you.

It’s easier and eliminates the risk of being caught spying in another country (a risk that’s part and parcel of the intelligence game and always has been). But you’re also a supplicant, dependent on foreign intelligence services. You’ll only know what they know – and of that, only what they tell you. And their interests are not always America’s interests. One also marvels that nobody seems to notice or at least do much about all this.

Congress has oversight responsibility for the CIA. But as one CIA officer commented a while back, there is little to worry about from Capitol Hill: “Tell them some stories, give them a little show-and-tell, and they think they’re dealing with Mr. Bond himself.” And it didn’t help when the then-director of national intelligence, Lieutenant General James Clapper, now one of President Trump’s fiercest critics, in 2013 delivered what he later called a “clearly erroneous” if “least untruthful” answer to the Senate Intelligence Committee when testifying about government surveillance of US citizens.

This doesn’t exactly make a citizen brim with confidence in the intelligence community’s ruling class or in US Air Force’s three-star generals. And it’s not just Clapper. Take one former CIA director and another former acting director on whose watches the CIA missed the rise of ISIS, for starters. Both were analysts, not case officers out in the field trying to recruit and obtain intelligence.

How did they get to the top? It’s depressing, but both were creatures of a CIA culture – most prevalent at, but not confined to, headquarters – where sycophancy, laissez-faire backstabbing and smoke-and-mirrors achievement are better for one’s career than producing intelligence on America’s most dangerous enemies. Not surprisingly the good officers, of whom there are plenty and who could get things on track, go to great lengths to avoid headquarters assignments.

In fairness, the CIA presumably is doing some useful work collecting information “the old fashioned way.” And the agency rightly doesn’t publicize it. But when the question of where the coronavirus came from and what the Chinese leadership knew and did is so hotly argued by Washington and Beijing, one wishes the CIA had settled the matter already. If the CIA doesn’t already have the answers to Covid-19, the agency hasn’t done its job. It would not be the first time. And one doubts it will be the last.