China’s Rise, Russian Hacking Cited as U.S. Spy Chiefs Speak

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Top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee issued warnings about China’s rise, Russian hacking and President Joe Biden’s plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 as the nation’s top spy chiefs testified publicly for the first time in more than two years.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns and the heads of the Defense Intelligence Agency and FBI spoke to the panel on Wednesday. In her opening remarks, Haines called China an “unparalleled priority for the Intelligence Community.”

That echoed comments from Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s chairman, who said the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly focused on displacing American dominance in technology and its influence in Asia, as Beijing seeks to exert greater influence in places such as the South China Sea.

“As China grows in power and stature, the CCP has sought to undercut the U.S. as the world’s leading technological power,” Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said in his opening statement. He cited China’s “reliance on both strategic investments and traditional espionage to acquire intellectual property” and “their modernization of traditional and asymmetric military capabilities, including in the cyber and space domains.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency is so focused on China that it opens a new investigation tied to the country every 10 hours on average. He called Beijing the most “severe threat” facing the U.S.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate panel, said the majority of America’s threats boil down to five areas: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and global terrorism.

But Rubio and Warner also flagged their interest in discussing Biden’s plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the U.S. invasion. Rubio warned that the U.S. departure could lead to the Taliban regaining control of the country and al-Qaeda reestablishing a base there.

“No one can deny it’s going to have serious security implications for our country for years to come,” Rubio said in his opening statement. If the Taliban take control, he said, “it’s almost certain that al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan.”

Burns, the Central Intelligence Agency director, testified that “there is a significant risk once the U.S. military and the coalition’s military withdraws.”

Rubio also pressed Haines for the latest assessment of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. She said the intelligence community is still focused on two leading theories: that the outbreak began naturally through animal-to-human contact or that it emerged as the result of an accident at a virus research laboratory.

“The Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent in working with the WHO in providing the original complete data that will answer those questions,” Burns said, referring to the World Health Organization.

Foreign hacking of Texas-based SolarWinds Corp, used by many government agencies and companies to protect their information technology, was another focus of the Wednesday hearing. Warner said the hack exposed that there’s no requirement to report breaches of critical infrastructure. The attack -- which the U.S. has blamed on Russia -- was first reported by a private cybersecurity company, FireEye Inc.

“If FireEye had not come forward, we might still be in the dark today,” Warner said.

The Wednesday hearing and another on Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee followed the release of an unclassified report by the intelligence community a day earlier detailing threats to the U.S. That report and this week’s hearings provide rare public insight into the daily classified briefings the intelligence chiefs give Biden as his administration shapes its still-developing strategy on threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The traditional annual hearings didn’t occur last year after former 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 27-page report released Tuesday reflected Biden’s pledge that his intelligence officials will give independent assessments. In one such example, the report offered a grim prognosis for the war in Afghanistan only hours before administration officials revealed that Biden has decided to remove American forces.

The intelligence officials said 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.”

In findings related to 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.”

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.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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