The career diplomat President Joe Biden named to lead the CIA is creating a high-level unit aimed at sharpening the agency's focus on China. CIA Director William Burns said on Thursday that the China Mission Center would cut across "all of the agency's mission areas." Credit: Handout.

The Chinese government systematically destroyed Central Intelligence Agency spy networks in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.

According to the New York Times, American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades.

Some were convinced that a mole within the CIA had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the agency used to communicate with its foreign sources. That debate remains unresolved.

But there was no disagreement about the damage done.

From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, according to former American officials, the Chinese killed at least a dozen of the CIA’s sources. One man was shot in front of his colleagues, to set an example.

All told, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the CIA’s sources in China, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build.

That tragedy still echoes through the halls of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.

But the agency, now headed by William J. Burns, is apparently taking a new turn.

According to a press statement released on Thursday, the CIA has announced the creation of a new group that will focus solely on China, and the strategic challenges posed by Beijing.

The CIA said the China Mission Center was formed “to address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China that cuts across all of the agency’s mission areas,” Al Jazeera reported.

The group, one of several mission centres operated by the CIA, will hold weekly, director-level meetings meant to better coordinate the agency’s strategy towards China.

It will address global issues critical to US competitiveness, the CIA said, such as emerging technologies, economic security, climate change and health challenges.

CIA Director William Burns said the new mission centre “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”

“Throughout our history, CIA has stepped up to meet whatever challenges come our way,” Burns said in a statement on Thursday. “And now facing our toughest geopolitical test in a new era of great power rivalry, CIA will be at the forefront of this effort.”

At the same time, two other traditionally high-priority areas will no longer be standalone but rather part of their regions: The Iran and Korea mission centers will be folded into the Near East Mission Center and the East Asia and Pacific center, respectively, CNN reported.

The Korea Mission Center had been created in 2017 to respond to the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

“That really reflects the regional nature of those issues in a lot of ways,” the senior CIA official said, while “China is really global.”

The official declined to say who would lead the two new mission centers. The CIA statement said Deputy Director David Cohen would oversee implementation.

The agency has briefed congressional leaders on the changes, and the increased focus on China at least is likely to be greeted warmly.

Both Republicans and Democrats have argued that the intelligence agencies need to direct more resources to China and improve their analysis of the Chinese government.

The announcement comes only days after CIA stations and bases around the world received a top-secret cable warning about informants that have been arrested, killed or turned into double agents.

Technological advances have made collecting intelligence in China very difficult. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras and facial recognition software powered by artificial intelligence have made evading detection in China particularly challenging.

Relations between the two superpowers have been particularly strained in recent days with China brazenly flying dozens of military planes near the self-governed island of Taiwan.

However, a US official said on Wednesday that President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to hold a virtual meeting by the end of this year.

The CIA also announced it will designate a chief technology officer for the first time as part of a broader effort to implement advanced computing methods at the agency.

In a message to the CIA work force delivered this week, Burns said that in China the United States was “facing our toughest geopolitical test in a new era of great power rivalry.”

Sources: New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, CNN Politics