In late June, former acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Mike Morell interviewed John Culver on his CBS News podcast.
That should interest you, because Culver was a career CIA analyst (like Morell, retired) who ended up as the intelligence community’s top officer for East Asia. Culver is extremely well regarded at the CIA. He was seen as a leader committed to his people and to speaking truth to power, especially on matters concerning China. That makes him worth listening to.
Here are some top takeaways from the podcast episode.
Culver says that China poses a “strategic challenge decades in the making, it’s not Germany in the 1930s.” Resisting the notion that the best intelligence material comes from secret sources and the shadows, Culver observes a need for the U.S. intelligence community to leverage open-source and commercial opportunities to gather valuable information. An example of what Culver is talking about is offered by the Bellingcat investigative journalist outlet. Making heavy use of commercially available cell phone records and data, Bellingcat has tracked the movement of Russian intelligence officers in proximity to incidents of major significance. These include the attempted murder of activist Alexei Navalny, for example.
Culver also notes the paranoia that drives Xi Jinping and his Communist Party inner circle. For these officials, there is an obsession with real and imagined threats. As Culver puts it, “for an authoritarian, every day is existential.” These leaders are perennially determined to “validate their [political] system as legitimate.”
One takeaway from this point is that, as the U.S. seeks to challenge Beijing’s economic, military, and human rights policies, Washington must be aware of how its actions might be perceived as a direct threat to the regime itself. This is not to say that the U.S. shouldn’t challenge China, but simply that closely consider and take into account how its challenges will be perceived.