One target stands out as US spies look to the future: China.

It’s unusual for American spies to convene at a conference and discuss the most critical national security problems openly.

“I’ve got to tell you all, it’s really strange to have your photo and your bio crop up after 27 years in the clandestine service,” Cynthia Saddy, a former CIA officer, remarked. She was speaking in a ballroom at a resort on Sea Island, Georgia, to a crowd of current and retired intelligence officials. A large screen behind her exhibited her portrait as well as a litany of high-ranking posts she had held at the agency, including chief of staff in the Directorate of Operations. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, joined the meeting online and helped establish the tone by sharing recommendations he offered to William Burns, the current CIA director. “First and foremost, you must travel to China. Then, second and most importantly, you must travel to China. The third is that you must travel to China. ‘OK, I got it,’ he responded.” Hayden retold the story. For decades, the United States’ intelligence community concentrated on the Soviet Union. Then there was the issue of terrorism in the Middle East. A new era has dawned, according to the intelligence community. “I refer to this as the third period of intelligence,” Sue Gordon stated. Before retiring as the principal deputy director of national intelligence in 2019, she served in a number of high-level positions, providing intelligence briefings to five of the last six presidents.

“We awoke out of our counterterrorism trance to find that the world had gone digital and that we hadn’t been focused on everything we needed to,” she explained. “During those years, China rose to prominence, and today we’re talking about Great Power competition.”