U.S. Spy Chiefs Warn of Threats From China to Climate Change

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The U.S. and its allies will face “a diverse array of threats” in the coming year, with aggression by Russia, China and Iran set against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic that has caused global disruption, according to the annual threat assessment by American intelligence agencies.

Additionally, ecological degradation and climate change “will continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises,” according to the unclassified assessment prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for congressional hearings this week.

The 27-page declassified version of the assessment was released Tuesday in advance of Senate and House hearings on Wednesday and Thursday that will revive a tradition of annual public presentations by the nation’s spy chiefs. That practice lapsed last year after then-President Donald Trump dismissed his own intelligence team as “extremely passive and naive” for findings in 2019 that didn’t fit his views on Iran and North Korea.

“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to strain governments and societies, fueling humanitarian and economic crises, political unrest, and geopolitical competition as countries, such as China and Russia, seek advantage through such avenues as ‘vaccine diplomacy,’” according to the new report.

On cybersecurity, the report warns that the prospect of more “destructive and disruptive” hacking attacks is increasing as countries deploy more aggressive cyber operations, including those likely to affect civilian populations.

“Foreign states use cyber operations to steal information, influence populations, and damage industry, including physical and digital critical infrastructure,” the report states. U.S. intelligence agencies are most concerned about the hacking capabilities of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

The report also says that democratic governments “will continue to debate how to protect privacy and civil liberties as they confront domestic security threats and contend with the perception that free speech may be constrained by major technology companies.”

In findings on other world flash points, the intelligence agencies say that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

And on Afghanistan, they “assess that prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year. The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

Release of the report in advance of the hearings is unprecedented, reflecting President Joe Biden’s pledge that his intelligence officials give their independent assessments of America’s threats. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in her confirmation hearing that someone in her post “must never shy away from speaking truth to power.”

Here are key findings:

China

The report describes China as increasingly a “near-peer competitor” to the U.S. that seeks to “foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system.” Beijing used its success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic as “evidence of the superiority of its system,” as well as to export surveillance technologies, the report said. At the same time, Beijing seeks to “muffle” criticism of China within the U.S. and to “pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests.”

China is also increasingly assertive across Asia, where it seeks to use its military, economic and diplomatic clout to “compel neighbors to acquiesce” to its preferences, according to the report. It said China’s conventional and nuclear forces are increasingly capable of putting American forces at risk.

The report predicts that the Chinese military will continue to pursue overseas military installations.

It also said China seeks to “match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space” through lunar exploration missions, a Chinese space station and by continuing to “field new destructive and nondestructive ground- and space-based anti-satellite weapons. China has already fielded ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in low-earth orbit and ground-based anti-satellite lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on LEO satellites.”

North Korea

The report predicts that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may seek to divide the U.S. and its allies through “aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions,” including the resumption of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile testing. The improvement of the regime’s conventional military capabilities provides Kim with “increasingly diverse” tools to advance its political objectives, as well as to threaten the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

Kim views nuclear weapons as the “ultimate deterrent” against foreign intervention and believes that that over time, North Korea will be accepted as a nuclear power, the report said.

The report also warns that North Korea’s cyber program poses a “growing espionage, theft, and attack threat.” It said that Pyongyang likely has the ability to cause temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure networks in the U.S. and possibly to conduct operations that compromise supply chains. The report also confirmed that North Korea has potentially stolen hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of cyber theft against financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges.

Russia

The intelligence community said that for all its provocative rhetoric and actions “we assess that Russia does not want a direct conflict with U.S. forces.” Instead, “we expect Moscow to seek opportunities for pragmatic cooperation with Washington on its own terms.”

The report said that Russia will continue to deploy tactics designed to undermine U.S. influence and divide Western countries, including influence campaigns, military aid, mercenary operations and assassinations. “We expect Moscow to insert itself into crises when Russian interests are at stake, it can turn a power vacuum into an opportunity, or the anticipated costs of action are low.” It cited Russia’s involvement in Syria and Libya, as well as its engagement with Venezuela and Cuba as examples.

Russia continues to use cyber weapons to “target critical infrastructure, including underwater cables and industrial control systems, in the United States and in allied and partner countries” to demonstrate “its ability to damage infrastructure during a crisis,” according to the report.

It said 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.”

“Despite flat or even declining defense spending, Russia will emphasize new weapons that present increased threats to the United States and regional actors while continuing its foreign military engagements, conducting training exercises, and incorporating lessons from its involvement in Syria and Ukraine,” the agencies found.

Terrorism

The greatest and most immediate terrorist threat inside the U.S. now comes from individuals or small groups of extremists who are ideologically motivated, especially by racial bias and anti-government sentiment, according to the report.

“Violent extremists who espouse an often overlapping mix of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs have the most persistent transnational connections,” the report states.

The Islamic State “remains capable of waging a prolonged insurgency in Iraq and Syria,” according to the report, which says the group “will attempt to expand its insurgency in Iraq and Syria, where it has been attacking prominent local leaders, security elements, infrastructure, and reconstruction efforts.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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