Chairman Schiff Speech at the Brookings Institution on China and the Intelligence Community
Washington, October 19, 2020
Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution as part of its Global China Initiative.
The speech, as prepared, is below:
Last month, after a two year “deep dive,” a review of thousands of analytic assessments, and hundreds of hours of interviews, the House Intelligence Committee released a report assessing the intelligence community’s competencies and capabilities to meet the growing challenge that China poses to the United States’ national security and continued health and prosperity.
The premise and the motivating factor for our review was that China’s growing power and capability and our capacity to respond will be the defining foreign policy issue of the coming decades. The intelligence community will have a key role to play in responding to that threat and providing policy makers with the information they need.
We found that, absent a significant realignment of intelligence resources, the United States will lack the insights it needs to compete with China on the global stage.
In the wake of 9/11, the United States and its intelligence agencies rapidly reoriented toward a counterterrorism mission to protect the homeland. Although those moves were both necessary and largely successful, our abilities and resources devoted to other priority missions—such as China—waned.
In the interim, China has continued to transform, committing to an agenda placing the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” at the center of its domestic and foreign policies. This has laid the foundation for a competitor that is simultaneously economically dynamic and politically regressive.
Perhaps of greatest concern is China’s embrace of totalitarian tactics that pose a direct challenge to the very idea of liberal democracy.
Beijing seeks to build a world in which its ambitions are unchallenged and individual freedoms give way to the needs of the state.
Beijing is accomplishing this through the development of systems of social control. We have seen this most clearly in China’s Xinjiang region, where over one million ethnic Muslim minorities have been interned in concentration camps against their will. Throughout China, the Party continues to work on the creation of a panopticon of constant and unrelenting surveillance. These systems are increasingly marketed for export, giving would-be authoritarians and wannabe dictators around the world the tools and playbook they need to follow China’s example.
Now more than ever, it is evident that we must challenge ourselves to ensure our national security apparatus is right-sized to focus on the areas of competition that will define the 2020s and beyond.
For the intelligence community, this means taking a hard look at how it conducts its China mission.
Our review concluded in a series of specific recommendations to the IC, many of them classified. But there are some key unclassified steps that we found the intelligence community can begin to take now to be better prepared.
First, the U.S. intelligence community must enhance its ability to collect and integrate open-source material into its China analysis. The concept of leveraging open source information to develop nuanced analysis of the Chinese Communist Party’s political decision-making is not new. For decades, academics and analysts alike have perfected the art of reading carefully parsed statements from official Chinese media sources. And as access to China continues to dwindle, these skills will only become more relevant.
However, what has changed is the volume and velocity of data, particularly digital dust from within China itself. We need to be confident that our intelligence community can simultaneously comb through and identify what among this vast trove of information has actual intelligence value, and then be able to apply these well-honed qualitative techniques to effectively evaluate it.
Critically, we concluded that while an enhanced focus on open source intelligence is of particular relevance to the China mission, the insights have broader applicability. In our Intelligence Authorization Act this year, we included a provision commissioning an external study to provide recommendations on the future governance of the intelligence community’s open source mission.
Second, the U.S. intelligence community must redouble its investment in specific types of expertise. It is obvious we need to hire more Mandarin Chinese linguists and people with technical backgrounds, but it’s more complex than that. In order to be successful, the intelligence community must invest in layered expertise.
What does that mean? In practice, this means you need people who both understand challenging functional and technical questions and can simultaneously relate these to China’s unique political context.
That’s why we need to do a better job of making sure that all intelligence community employees—especially those that do not work full-time on China—have a baseline familiarity with “China 101.”
To that end, it’s essential that everyone from our clandestine operatives worldwide, to our analysts working on Africa or Latin America issues, have professional development opportunities that relay foundational information about China’s political system and national goals.
Additionally, we need to be sure that our expertise does not shy away from embracing depth and nuance. Too often, external observers are guilty of falling into broad generalizations about China’s motivations and behavior.
While views that run counter to Xi Jinping are being increasingly silenced within Beijing, it is worthwhile to seek to understand any diversity of thought within China’s bureaucracy, particularly as it relates to the Party’s engagement with provincial leadership.
Finally, the intelligence community must be laser-focused on the areas of non-traditional competition we’re engaged in today, rather than devote the preponderance of our resources towards a kinetic conflict that we hope never comes.
In many cases, these areas of competition are best described as “soft” threats. But even soft threats can be disastrous.
The ravages of COVID-19 and the tragic loss of more than 215,000 Americans has made it abundantly clear that diseases with pandemic potential pose a clear threat to our national security. The intelligence community must continue to challenge itself to identify ways it can contribute to the development of a robust indications and warning system in advance of any comparable future outbreak.
Climate change is another “soft” threat that we must take more seriously in our China analysis. This is critical on two dimensions. First, environmental events occurring within China are likely to have tangible geopolitical consequences. China’s intentional damming and degradation of the Mekong River has resulted in economic hardships throughout the Mekong River Delta in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The recent flooding along the Yangtze River has resulted in the deaths of hundreds and a campaign from China’s leadership to cut down on food waste. And as the effects of climate change multiply, it will also impact the landscapes that the US and our competitors are forced to contend with.
Additionally, if the United States hopes to lead the world in addressing the climate crisis, and with new leadership I hope that we will, it will be critical to build a global coalition. We can’t be naïve about this—while China likes to portray itself as a leader on climate issues, we know that they’re doubling down on exporting energy technology that relies on fossil fuels, because doing so is in its own immediate economic interest. The intelligence community must be ready to enable the strong and dogged negotiations our diplomats will need to undertake in order to spark change on this issue.
All of these priorities I’ve outlined—open source intelligence, developing expertise, and increasing our focus on non-traditional threats—require additional resourcing and dedicated attention from leadership. This will require trade-offs and hard decisions by our leaders. I harbor no illusions that what we’re asking of the intelligence community is easy; rather, it is intentionally hard.
We will need to step back from other missions and legacy programs, and strategically accept higher risks in other areas. But absent these tough calls, the intelligence community risks falling victim to strategic stasis.
But the good news is, we still have time to right the ship and change course.
It is essential that we commit to making these changes now. If the U.S. fails to accurately predict and characterize Beijing’s intent, we will continue to struggle to understand how and why the leadership of the CCP makes decisions. In turn, we will fail to develop policies that enable an effective response.
Similarly, we must be sure that in our efforts to meet this challenge, we do so in a way that aligns with our values. The President’s racially charged rhetoric towards China, particularly as it relates to the emergence of COVID-19, has fueled a storm of racist and angry attacks that are harmful to our fellow Americans of Chinese and other East Asian descents. This is both reprehensible and unacceptable. It will also handicap our broader national security, by isolating the communities perhaps best positioned to contribute to our efforts.
How to confront the rising threat of China is not just a problem for our intelligence agencies alone. And our report and analysis were focused on just a narrow slice of our capabilities.
The United States government, and its national security and foreign policy apparatus, is expansive and complex. Any coherent, whole-of-government approach to the challenge that China poses will similarly require those who work on defense, diplomacy, and development to take hard looks at their resource posture and strategic focus. This reorientation of our national security bureaucracy cannot and should not be a cost for our intelligence professionals alone to bear.