The "Washington Times" reported on Jan. 20 that the US National Security Council (NSC) had recently directed its spy agencies to lower the priority placed on intelligence collection for China. The decision, the report said, would downgrade China from “Priority 1” status — which includes countries such as Iran and North Korea — to “Priority 2,” which covers specific humanitarian crises and conflicts like Indo-Pakistani tensions.
The move, the paper wrote, was part of efforts by the administration of US President Barack Obama to “develop a more cooperative relationship with Beijing.”
Amid opposition within the intelligence community and fears that the downgrading would hamper efforts to monitor China's growing military strength and cyber-attack capabilities, the NSC said the change “would not affect the allocation of resources for spying on China or the urgency of focusing on Chinese spying targets.”
While proponents of the new policy maintain that the downgrade would not change anything, critics fear that while not immediate, the repercussions would be felt over time.
“A change in tier priority usually means that projects targeting a country will be scrutinized more skeptically on budgetary and other grounds,” the paper said.
Spending on human intelligence and electronic surveillance could also suffer, while the CIA and the US Defense Intelligence Agency could take fewer risks targeting the downgraded country.
Washington's decision allegedly came in the wake of protests by Beijing following the release in September of a National Intelligence Strategy that identified China among the top four threats to US interests alongside Iran, North Korea and Russia.
National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, whose office released the strategy, as well as CIA Director Leon Panetta, have publicly opposed the downgrading.
The Washington Times also wrote that the announcement was made just as civilian and military leaders were pointing to deficiencies on intelligence collection and analysis on China, which often led to underestimates on Beijing's military and espionage capabilities.
Information obtained by the Taipei Times indicated that the downgrade would not only apply to foreign intelligence collection, such as by the CIA, the NSC and the Defense Intelligence Agency, but also domestically, meaning that the de-prioritization would also affect domestic agencies like the FBI, which handles counterespionage on US territory.
For security experts, the decision made little sense. While some said that better management of finite intelligence resources was desirable and agreed that priority No. 1 for the US intelligence apparatus should be terrorism, it did not mean that resources should be taken away from China.
“Given China's increased missile activity, not to mention the development of anti-satellite and space warfare capability, it does not make sense,” said Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for the Washington-based weekly Defense News. “If there is one weak area for our intelligence collection it is what China is doing in the cyber warfare area. Speculation is rampant, but there are very few hard clues as to how many of the hacker attacks are patriotic netizens or government-sponsored ops,” he said.
For Toshi Yoshihara, associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, the main problem with the decision concerned the risk of underestimating China's military modernization.