Figuring out what, exactly, China is up to is one of the intelligence community’s top priorities. Countering Beijing also happens to be a rare instance where there’s bipartisan support in Congress.
But what new lawmakers will quickly discover — especially those joining the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — is that a glaring gap exists that will impact Congress’ efforts to do so. The U.S. cannot adequately address its national security challenges related to China, which are increasingly driven by technology, without the help of a potentially surprising partner: the Department of Commerce.
Unfortunately, the department itself lacks the critical support needed for these efforts. Most crucial: Commerce needs its own intelligence agency.
My last job in the U.S. government was overseeing the intelligence community’s role in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), along with an interagency group formerly known as Team Telecom, and being responsible for the intelligence community’s engagement with our foreign allies’ own investment security efforts. The cases that come before CFIUS are privileged and not publicly disclosed. But I can say this: The most challenging ones usually revolved around issues of advanced or dual-use technology, an area in which the Department of Commerce plays a critical role given its international trade and export control responsibilities.
Today, the Department of Commerce is an agency unexpectedly on the frontlines of vital U.S. national and economic security challenges, most prominently demonstrated by its leading role on ensuring critical access to semiconductors, and as evidenced by the CHIPS Act and recent rules promulgated by the department to protect against even knowledge transfers between the United States and China.
But these efforts are certain to be a beginning for Commerce, not an end. And a dedicated in-house intel agency can better identify emerging threats and challenges from China that Commerce needs to tackle, including potential spyware and other intrusions embedded in foreign technology. For instance, in late November, the U.S. issued a ban on new Huawei and ZTE equipment — along with that of three other Chinese companies — for fear it would be used to spy on Americans. Last month, Congress proposed limiting U.S. exposure to Chinese 5G leaders, including Huawei, by restricting their access to U.S. banks, adding them to Treasury’s Specifically Designated Nationals List.
In fact, Commerce’s current position is not unlike that of the Treasury Department’s in 2004.
That year — as part of the Intelligence Authorization Act — Congress established the current iteration of Treasury’s intelligence agency, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and formally made it part of the broader intel community. Since then, OIA has played a critical role for almost two decades combating terrorist financing, helping support sanctions efforts and providing financial intelligence to Treasury policymakers.
OIA’s successes would simply not have been possible without it being a full, integrated member of the intelligence community. Indeed, its assessments often find their way to the White House and to other senior policymakers across town, even as its primary focus is supporting the Treasury Department.
In the same way, the Commerce Department cannot be expected to play a more fulsome role in U.S. national security if its leaders are not fully informed of the strategic goals and illicit tactical efforts of U.S. adversaries. To meet that expectation, requires the launch of a new, 19th intel agency to be housed at the department.
Most Americans think of intelligence and by default conjure up images of the CIA. But there are 18 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, most housed in various departments or military services, and dedicated to providing the kind of intelligence support to a secretary or commander, that CIA continues to lead the way in providing to the White House.
Members of Congress who for the first time are serving on the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services or other prominent national security-related committees and sub-committees, may be surprised to learn that despite what they may have gleaned from the media, the intel community does not actually make predictions; it makes judgments. The difference is critical.
Predictions are generally fleeting: right and wrong, winners and losers, black and white. Judgments are far more complicated. They address the likelihood of events and emergence of prospective capabilities; the potential follow-on implications and challenges from an event occurring — or not; and the associated risks and opportunities for U.S. national and economic security.
These conclusions are what the intelligence community informs policymakers of, to help them make the best decisions possible.
Not only would Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo benefit greatly from having her own intel agency providing these types of assessments directly to her, but so too would the rest of the department, including the Bureau of Industry and Security, which is responsible for export controls, and the International Trade Administration, which defends U.S. industry against unfair trade practices of foreign allies and adversaries.
In creating the new agency, the Director of National Intelligence and Congress must ensure it does not simply result from merging together overworked and under-supported disparate parts of the department that seem to fit. Less than two years ago, Commerce’s national security work was overshadowed by a rogue and illegal security operation at the department — and neither it nor the U.S. government can afford a repeat.
Rather, a new agency must be stood up and staffed by leaders and analysts who are intel community professionals that know how to blend complex analytic efforts with the priorities of the department. Having this type of experienced leadership will ensure the development of novel and Commerce-centric analysis, all while adhering to intelligence tradecraft and community standards.
A new intel agency at the Commerce Department won’t end the national security challenges the U.S. faces from China; but it will help policymakers mitigate and overcome them.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community, or any other U.S. government agency.