Intel officials call China “unparalleled priority” among world threats
Top officials from the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities told a Senate panel on Wednesday that a “shifting landscape” of quick-moving and interconnected global threats – ranging from climate change to cyberattacks – would mean agencies will need to reframe some of their approach to issues of national security.
No threat, they said, looms larger or thornier than the one posed by China, which Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines called an “unparalleled priority” and a “formidable challenge.”
“China increasingly is a near-peer competitor challenging the United States in multiple arenas, while pushing to revise global norms in ways that favor the authoritarian Chinese system,” Haines said in prepared opening remarks.
Haines testified alongside the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, all of whom appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee for an annual, public hearing on worldwide threats.
It was the first time since 2019 that the hearing, a tradition for well over a decade, took place. Intelligence leaders balked at testifying publicly last year to avoid a public rebuke by then-President Trump, who previously upbraided his own intelligence officials for offering assessments in apparent conflict with his administration’s policies.
The officials’ testimony followed the release of a written report on Tuesday that laid out the collective assessment of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies on top threats.
After Haines recapped the major findings of the report in her opening statement, committee Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, quipped that it was “as many awful things in ten minutes as I may have heard in recent times.”
Warner zeroed in on the technological threat from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he said he feared would seek to “dominate” a wide range of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
The intelligence community “must be clear-eyed in assessing the range of threats posed by the CCP,” he said.
Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, pressed Haines on the intelligence community’s ongoing work to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lab accident scenario, Rubio asserted, remained “plausible.”
Haines responded that the intelligence community “does not know exactly where, when or how” COVID-19 was initially transmitted, but said both theories of a natural emergence and lab accident were still being explored.
CIA Director William Burns added that Beijing’s leadership had “not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent” in what it had shared relevant global health authorities or the U.S. government.
Senators also raised repeated concerns about the country’s own preparedness to fend off cyber intrusions, including how it was contending with fallout from the SolarWinds Russian espionage campaign and the Microsoft Exchange hack attributed to Chinese spies.
NSA Director General Paul Nakasone, who also leads U.S. Cyber Command, said agencies’ visibility into the cybersecurity of domestic entities was limited because adversaries had “structured their activities” to exploit U.S. legal and policy boundaries. He also said cyber intruders had moved beyond techniques like spear phishing and password-guessing to “above best practices” – more sophisticated maneuvers like targeting supply chain vulnerabilities and zero-day exploits.
Nakasone told the panel repeatedly that he was “not seeking” bolstered authorities for either the NSA or Cyber Command, but that the existing “blind spots” were a challenge relevant agencies would eventually “have to be able to address.”
Senators seemed to reserve their most sensitive questions about current threats with real-time policy implications – including about Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border – for the closed-door, classified session that follows the public hearing.
On Tuesday, President Biden proposed a U.S.-Russia summit in a third country in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a readout from the White House, which also said Mr. Biden was seeking a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow.
The administration has also sent officials to Vienna for indirect talks aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
Several lawmakers raised the administration’s planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which President Biden announced Wednesday afternoon.
“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish; that’s simply a fact,” Burns said. But, he added, the CIA and other partners would retain “a suite of capabilities” that would help the U.S. “anticipate and contest” new threats that could arise.
“I think we have to be clear-eyed about the reality looking at the potential terrorism challenge that both al Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets,” Burns said. “After years of sustained counterterrorism pressure, the reality is that neither of them have that capacity today.”
Burns will testify along with the same panel of witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee for its version of the hearing on Thursday.