Biden's CIA director creates high-level unit focusing on China

CIA director William Burns said that the China Mission Centre cuts across all of the agency's mission areas. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The career diplomat US President Joe Biden named to lead the Central Intelligence Agency is creating a high-level unit aimed at sharpening the agency's focus on China, at a time of tense relations between the world's two largest economies.

CIA director William Burns said on Thursday (Oct 7) that the China Mission Centre he was setting up "cuts across all of the agency's mission areas", while noting that the CIA's concern is that "the threat is from the Chinese government, not its people".

A senior CIA official compared Mr Burns' creation of the China unit to the agency's tight focus on Russia during the Cold War and to its concentration on counter-terrorism following the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

No such high-level unit focusing explicitly on China had previously been set up by the agency, even in the wake of harsh attacks on China by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The new China unit was one of several reshuffles resulting from a broad review the agency launched last spring, the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the Biden administration's first months, relations with Beijing soured over deep differences on many issues, including human rights, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

But top officials from both countries met this week to improve communication and set the stage for a virtual meeting of presidents by the end of the year.

Other agency moves include merging an Iran Mission Centre set up by the Trump administration into a broader Middle East unit and merging a unit focusing on Korea with a broader East Asia-Pacific unit, the official said.

Mr Burns said the CIA also was creating a position for a chief technology officer as well as a new office called the Transnational and Technology Mission Centre.

This unit, the senior official said, would enable the agency to focus more tightly on issues such as global health, climate change, humanitarian disasters and disruption caused by new technologies.

The agency will also create a programme under which it would encourage qualified employees to serve as "technology fellows"for a year or two in private industry.

The senior official said the agency had also set up an "incident cell" to oversee responses to the mysterious illness known as "Havana Syndrome", which has affected numerous diplomats and CIA employees, some of whom have been "diagnosed with real harm".

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