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Opinion: Putin, Beijing rules, and better recruiting: Decoding the CIA director's first public speech

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FILE - In this May 24, 2011 file photo, William Burns testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State. President-elect Joe Biden announced Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, he has chosen the veteran diplomat to be his CIA director. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) © Evan Vucci/AP FILE - In this May 24, 2011 file photo, William Burns testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State. President-elect Joe Biden announced Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, he has chosen the veteran diplomat to be his CIA director. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

In his first public speech since becoming CIA director last March, William Burns addressed Georgia Tech university on Thursday. His focus areas?

China, Russia, recruitment, technology, and more China.

Burns's focus on China is crucial but nevertheless praiseworthy. After all, some in the Biden administration want to deprioritize efforts to counter Chinese espionage activity. The Justice Department's suspension of the "China Initiative," for example, is a grievous error. That suspension puts delusional interpretations of prejudice before an exigent need to disrupt Chinese espionage.

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With Russia's war on Ukraine at the forefront of global attention, however, Russia is where Burns began. The former U.S. ambassador to Moscow observed that Vladimir Putin's "risk appetite has grown as his grip on Russia has tightened. His circle of advisers has narrowed, and in that small circle, it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s sphere of influence."

Burns also noted that "politics truly must stop where intelligence work begins." How this commitment aligns with the Biden administration's exaggerated presentation of certain declassified intelligence on Russia is unclear, however. This balancing act must be watched carefully in the coming weeks.

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Then, it was on to China.

Burns aptly noted how "a silent partner in Putin's aggression, Xi Jinping’s China is our greatest challenge, in many ways the most profound test that CIA has ever faced. ... We have never had to deal with an adversary with more reach in more domains."

Listing China's various human rights abuses, its debt-trap diplomacy, and its desire to displace the democratic international order with that of a Chinese communist feudal autocracy, Burns underlined the need to counter Xi's regime. Referencing "ubiquitous technical surveillance" of the kind applied in Chinese cities, Burns observed how his agency has had to "fundamentally rethink how we do our operations." What Burns left out, here, is that while CIA officers are using new technologies to evade surveillance nets (such as cellphones implanted with false data trails and patterns of life activity), they are also renewing older tenets of tradecraft. The old "Moscow Rules" mastery of facial disguises has made a notable comeback, for example.

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Talking of Moscow, Burns rightly promised to sustain the investigation into the so-called Havana Syndrome that has been affecting his officers around the world. The CIA needs to light a fire under its Russia desks, here.

Back to China.

The CIA needs officers who can hide seamlessly among the 1.4 billion people of China. Burns thus noted, "We aim to double the number of Mandarin-speaking officers in the next few years." Similar pledges have been made by CIA directors before, notably with regards to Arabic in the early days of the "War on Terror." The results have been less auspicious. Burns also offered a positive pledge to shorten the agency's currently lethargic recruitment timeline to 180 days. Still, one problem is that the CIA recruitment process continues to prefer applicants with utterly spotless records and high-quality academic credentials who can easily pass security checks.

There's a reason that the CIA has so many employees from Latter-day Saint backgrounds, for example. More than most Americans, Latter-day Saints tend to be patriots of exceptional character and credentials who have very few personal flaws. Many are superb CIA officers. The problem, however, is that those with the most impeccable resumes might not always be those best suited to recruiting an alcoholic Russian GRU officer or greed-obsessed Chinese Ministry of State Security officer. This is one reason why other Western intelligence services such as Britain's MI6 do not require employees to take polygraphs routinely: They value personal interaction more than intrinsic procedures and don't want otherwise talented applicants self-selecting out. The CIA needs more officers who have lived abroad, can blend in, and who don't fit the grain.

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That said, the CIA cannot afford a mission creep that risks prioritizing identity politics before national security. I know for a fact that there are some truly exceptional LGBT officers at the CIA. Truly exceptional. But even if it is informed by their life experiences, the exceptional quality of these individuals is ultimately defined by their skill and service, not their sexual identity. The CIA has mistakenly assumed that openness to all requires its embrace of woke verbosity and related training sessions. The agency's March 2021 "I am a cisgendered millennial" commercial, for example, was rightly ridiculed both outside and inside the CIA. There must be zero tolerance for bigotry or bullying, but the CIA needs employees who demand excellence from others as well as offering mentorship. The CIA will fail if it puts woke buzzwords before quality.

Regardless, Burns concluded on a very strong note.

Recalling his father's advice that "nothing will make you prouder than to serve your country with honor," Burns called on Georgia Tech's students to "take some time to explore CIA and public service." That's a proud, patriotic message we need to hear more often.

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Tags: Opinion, Beltway Confidential, National Security, Foreign Policy, CIA, Espionage, Russia, China, Communist Party, Opinion

Original Author: Tom Rogan

Original Location: Putin, Beijing rules, and better recruiting: Decoding the CIA director's first public speech

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