China’s Ambitions, Russia’s Nukes and TikTok: Spy Chiefs Talk Biggest U.S. Security Threats

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U.S. intelligence leaders on Wednesday outlined a dizzying range of national security threats facing America, while making clear that China ranked atop the list.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party “represents both the leading and most consequential threat to U.S. national security and leadership globally,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee at its annual hearing on the top threats to the nation. “Its intelligence-specific ambitions and capabilities make it for us our most serious and consequential intelligence rival.”

Lawmakers questioned Haines and the other top U.S. intelligence officials—CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, and NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone—about China’s “love affair” with Russia, its economic and military espionage, its expanded control over global supply chains, and its lack of transparency over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Read More: Why Spy Agencies May Lose Sweeping Surveillance Powers.

The hearing represents a rare annual opportunity for lawmakers to publicly grill the country’s top intelligence chiefs. Senators spent time questioning the officials on everything from the threat of nuclear war with Russia to white-supremacist violence to TikTok. The back-and-forth illustrated the striking shift in national-security priorities as the U.S. moves away from two decades of focusing on Islamic terrorism and wars in the Middle East to an increasingly complex web of technological and cyber threats, along with homegrown extremism.

“We can no longer just pay attention to who has the most tanks, airplanes or missiles,” Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the committee, told colleagues, noting that “the very nature of national security is undergoing a profound transformation.”

Here’s a look at the threats that lawmakers and top intelligence officials discussed.

China seeks to challenge the global order “at the expense of U.S. power and influence”

As Chinese President Xi Jinping begins an unprecedented third term, he will continue to work toward his vision of making China “the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage,” Haines told lawmakers, adding that the ruling Chinese Communist Party “is increasingly convinced that it can only do so at the expense of U.S. power and influence.”

Read More: The Most Powerful Person In the World Is China’s President.

Tensions flared between the U.S. and China last month when the U.S. shot down what they said was a Chinese surveillance balloon that violated American airspace, after which Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his trip to the country.

Chinese leaders have also recently sharpened their rhetoric towards Washington, with Jinping alleging that U.S.-led “encirclement and suppression” is to blame for the country’s economic problems, and Beijing’s new foreign minister warning of inevitable “confrontation and conflict.” Even so, Chinese leaders still believe their country “benefits most by preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States,” Haines said Wednesday.

TikTok “screams” of national security concerns

Senators spent considerable time questioning intelligence officials about the national security risks posed by TikTok, the Chinese-owned social video app used by more than 100 million people in the U.S. FBI Director Chris Wray said that the Chinese government could potentially use TikTok to control the data of millions of Americans, and use it as an influence tool to shape public opinion of the country were it to invade Taiwan.

“The greatest threat facing America is not another country,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence panel, who accused TiKTok of seeking to “collect our data, manipulate information, poison and feed garbage into the minds” of millions of Americans. “It is whether or not we have the ability and the willingness to accurately assess and appropriately adapt our foreign and domestic policies in this time of historic, revolutionary and disruptive technological, social, economic and geopolitical changes.”

While the app went unmentioned in the intelligence community’s 40-page declassified report released Wednesday, TikTok is facing increased scrutiny in Washington. The White House backed a ​​new bipartisan Senate bill this week that would give the Biden administration the power to ban foreign-based technologies that pose a national security threat, one of several legislative attempts to restrict the social app.

“This is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government—and it, to me, it screams out with national security concerns,” Wray said.

There’s still no consensus on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic

The U.S. intelligence chiefs acknowledged that their community continues to be divided over the origins of the COVID-19 virus. The ongoing debate over the pandemic’s origins was revived by a recent Wall Street Journal report that the U.S. Energy Department, which oversees a network of national labs, had assessed with low confidence that a lab leak in Wuhan, China, was the most likely origin.

Wray reiterated the FBI’s assessment that the virus likely originated as a lab leak. Haines said there was no consensus on whether the pandemic started due to a “lab leak” or “natural exposure to an infected animal.”

“China has not fully cooperated, and that is a key critical gap that would help us understand what, exactly, happened,” she told the committee.

Russia is unlikely to make “major territorial gains” in 2023 as the war in Ukraine grinds on

President Vladimir Putin lacks the manpower or resources to turn the tide of the war in Russia’s favor, Haines said, calling the conflict a “grinding attritional war in which neither side has a definitive military advantage.” While Russian troops are making “incremental progress” in the eastern city of Bakhmut, she said, it’s not a “particularly strategic objective.”

“We do not foresee the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains,” Haines told lawmakers. “But Putin most likely calculates the time works in his favor, and that prolonging the war, including with potential pauses in the fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years.”

Even so, the unclassified worldwide threats report notes that U.S. intelligence officials believe that while Moscow does not want a direct military conflict with U.S. or NATO forces, there is still a “significant” risk of escalation. Since heavy battlefield losses have degraded Russia’s conventional capabilities it has “increased its reliance on nuclear weapons,” the report says. “There is real potential for Russia’s military failures in the war to hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic standing and thereby trigger additional escalatory actions by Russia in an effort to win back public support.”

White supremacist violence poses the “most lethal threat” to Americans

Racially and ethnically motivated extremists, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, “remain the most lethal threat to US persons and interests,” according to the new report. “These actors increasingly seek to sow social divisions, support fascist-style governments, and attack government institutions.”

While this was not a new assessment, Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, took issue with what he called the “politicization” of the report. “Are you serious?” he asked intelligence chiefs, asking twice if they really believed racially motivated extremists posed a bigger threat to Americans than ISIS or Al Qaeda.

Read More: Inside the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism.

“Yes,” Haines said. “It simply is a question of how many people are killed or wounded as a consequence of attacks.” Burns agreed: “If you measure this in terms of your American lives lost or people who were wounded, I think those statistics bear that out.”

“I find this astonishing,” Cotton responded.

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