WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies had already obtained a trove of Chinese data containing potential clues on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic when President Joe Biden ordered a review earlier this year. The challenge was in deciphering it.
Spy agencies needed data scientists to process the intelligence, biologists to put it into context, and Mandarin Chinese speakers to help translate it. All of them needed security clearances for access to classified information.
It was a high-profile example of a growing challenge within the intelligence community.
“When you’re able to clandestinely acquire a very technical document, there’s only a handful of people you can then go to and ask, ‘what does this say?’” said Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former leadership analyst at the CIA.
“One of the really sad realities about the intelligence community,” Harding said, “is that the very skills and backgrounds that we desperately need are the same ones that are difficult to clear.”
CIA Director Bill Burns is urging the agency to recruit Chinese speakers, scientists and engineers in even greater numbers.
The CIA is hiring over 100 language and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experts who can work with its newly formed China and technology mission centers. “The revolution in technology has transformed the nature of global challenges and threats to the United States,” Luis Rossello, CIA’s deputy press secretary, told McClatchy.
The new recruitment focus comes at the encouragement of the president and leadership in Congress.
“As the intelligence community refocuses its efforts around great power competition and a rising and increasingly aggressive China, ensuring that we have both technical experts and Mandarin speakers is critical to the IC’s mission,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told McClatchy.
His committee’s September 2020 special report on China “identified both of these priorities as key strategic requirements,” Schiff said, “and we have been working collaboratively with the IC to address them.”