The top U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday provided their assessment of worldwide threats affecting U.S. interests, focusing on cybersecurity and military concerns posed by Beijing and Moscow, but also the threat of both domestic and international terrorism.
It was the first such assessment formally presented at a hearing to Congress in two years due to tensions between former President Donald Trump and the nation’s intelligence community.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, in her opening statement before lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed language in the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, officially released Tuesday. She described China as “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.”
Her opening statement also touched on concerns about Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. influence, Iran’s contributions to instability in the Middle East, global terrorism and the threat of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
In addition to Haines, CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier also appeared before the committee to discuss findings in the assessment.
Among other things, the assessment said that Beijing sees “an epochal geopolitical shift” that has occurred in its favor at the expense of the United States. It also concluded that Russia is continuing to use cyberattacks to target critical U.S. infrastructure. Tehran, the report said, will seek to avoid direct conflict with the U.S., calibrating attacks so as not to provoke a response from Washington. Finally, it speculated that North Korea may be considering a resumption of nuclear or long-range missile tests this year.
The four countries “have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic,” according to assessment.
However, the intelligence chiefs’ Senate interlocutors showed special interest in cyberthreats, noting the Russia-linked and far-reaching SolarWinds attack that infected a stunning breadth of U.S.-based computer systems.
Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., suggested the U.S. might want to “develop new international norms where certain types of attacks are prohibited, just as the use of chemical or bioweapons is banned.”
The hearings also touched on domestic and international terrorism as well as President Biden’s plan to withdraw remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Asked if “new authorities” were needed to defend against cyberthreats, Nakasone, the NSA director, said he was “not seeking legal authorities for either NSA or U.S. Cyber Command.”
“With an adversary that has increased its scope, scale and sophistication, we have to understand that there are blind spots in our nation today,” he said.
Tuesday’s assessment said that Beijing viewed competition with the U.S. “as part of an epochal geopolitical shift” and Washington as aiming “to contain China’s rise.”
“Beijing is increasingly combining its growing military power with its economic, technological, and diplomatic clout to preserve the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], secure what it views as its territory and regional preeminence, and pursue international cooperation at Washington’s expense,” the report said.
The assessment also predicted that China will at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the next decade, fielding a full Cold War-style triad of nuclear assets — intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-armed bombers and submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles.
China’s ballistic missile arsenal is “more survivable, more diverse, and on higher alert than in the past, including nuclear missile systems designed to manage regional escalation and ensure an intercontinental second-strike capability,” the report said.
It cautioned that “Beijing is not interested in arms-control agreements that restrict its modernization plans and will not agree to substantive negotiations that lock in U.S. or Russian nuclear advantage.”
The assessment specifically highlighted China’s expansive claims and increasingly assertive presence in the South China Sea, saying, “Beijing will continue to intimidate rival claimants and will use growing numbers of air, naval, and maritime law enforcement platforms to signal to Southeast Asian countries that China has effective control over contested areas.”
It also predicted that it will step up pressure on Taiwan for unification and criticize any U.S. effort to move closer to Taipei.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, asked about the hypothesis that a leak from a Wuhan, China-based virus laboratory could be the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The intelligence community does not know exactly what, where or when the coronavirus emerged initially,” Haines acknowledged.
Wray, the FBI director, reminded lawmakers of several arrests last year of individuals involved in what prosecutors described as a Chinese-government operation to conduct “uncoordinated, illegal law enforcement activity” aimed at tracking down and repatriating Chinese dissidents in the United States.
“It’s an indication and illustration of just how challenging and diverse this particular threat is,” Wray said. “We have now over 2,000 investigations that tie back to the Chinese government.”
He said that in just one area — economic espionage tied to the Chinese government — investigations were up about 1,300% over the last several years.
China’s growing capabilities in space is also noted in the report, including Beijing’s plans for a space station in low-Earth orbit, a moon base and its fielding of ground and space-based, anti-satellite weapons.
“There’s just no question as a general matter that China is focused on achieving leadership in space, in effect, as compared to the United States and has been working hard on a variety of different efforts in this area to try to contest what has been presumed to be our leadership in these areas,” Haines said.
Moscow is likely to continue Cold War-style confrontation with the U.S. and its allies, wielding influence through arms and energy agreements, to further its aims.
“In the Western Hemisphere, Russia has expanded its engagement with Venezuela, supported Cuba, and used arms sales and energy agreements to try to expand access to markets and natural resources in Latin America, in part to offset some of the effects of sanctions,” the assessment said. “In the former Soviet Union, Moscow is well positioned to increase its role in the Caucasus, intervene in Belarus if it deems necessary, and continue destabilization efforts against Ukraine while settlement talks remain stalled and low-level fighting continues.”
In 2014, Russian forces infiltrated and annexed Crimea — a territory on the Black Sea that had long been considered part of Ukraine. Moscow has also waged a proxy war against Kyiv in the country’s east that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. In recent days, tensions have escalated further, with Kyiv claiming that 40,000 Russian troops are massed on its eastern border and another 40,000 are stationed in Crimea.
Responding to a question about the significance of the Russian troop movements near Ukraine from Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Burns, the CIA director, called the buildup “a serious concern” and suggested it could be “a way of trying to intimidate the Ukrainian leadership.”
“But also the buildup has reached the point where it could be the basis of a limited military incursion,” he said.
Russia was continuing to deploy cyberattacks targeting “critical infrastructure, including underwater cables and industrial control systems, in the United States and in allied and partner countries,” the threat assessment said, saying such attacks hones capabilities and demonstrates Moscow’s “ability to damage infrastructure during a crisis.”
The intelligence community’s assessment said ISIS and al-Qaida continue to pose threats to U.S. interests overseas. “They also seek to conduct attacks inside the United States,” the report said, though sustained pressure “has broadly degraded their capability to do so.”
Even so, “US-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate domestic threat. We see this lone-actor threat manifested both within homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), who are inspired by al-Qa’ida and ISIS, and within domestic violent extremists (DVEs), who commit terrorist acts for ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and antigovernment sentiment.”
Asked how the FBI views the QAnon conspiracy movement, Wray said the bureau has a “focus on the violence regardless of the inspiration.”
He described QAnon as “a set of complex conspiracy theories largely promoted online, which has sort of morphed into more of a movement.”
“Like a lot of other conspiracy theories, the effects of COVID — social isolation, financial hardship, etc., all exacerbate people’s vulnerability to those theories,” he said.
“Where it is an inspiration for federal crime, we are going to aggressively pursue it.”