Intel chiefs sound alarm on China in global threats hearing

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China’s push to expand its influence dominated the first congressional hearing about global threats in more than two years on Wednesday, with U.S. intelligence chiefs sounding the alarm about Beijing’s aspirations.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines called China an “unparalleled priority” for the spy community, while FBI Director Christopher Wray told senators that his agency has more than 2,000 open investigations that “tie back to the Chinese government,” with new probes being opened every 10 hours. He said the bureau has seen a 1,300 percent increase in economic espionage cases tied to Beijing over the last several years.

“I don’t think there is any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideals,” Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee at the first congressional worldwide threats hearing since 2019.

Their statements before the panel underscored the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill and within the Biden administration that China poses the most significant national security threat to the U.S. — even as the intelligence leaders warned of other dangers including Russia, domestic extremism and climate change. The remarks came the day after the clandestine community released an unclassified assessment that warned of Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence.

Wednesday's session came as senators are crafting a bipartisan bill aimed at countering Beijing’s influence and its desire to out-compete the U.S. in technology.

CIA Director William Burns noted that “competition and technology is right at the core of our rivalry with an increasingly adversarial Chinese Communist Party and Chinese leadership in the coming years.”

The intelligence community’s focus on China is wide-ranging, the officials said.

For example, Haines told lawmakers that the intelligence community does not yet know “where, when or how” the Covid-19 virus was initially transmitted to humans, though she noted that the leading suspicions are that it spread naturally from animals or accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. Burns noted that China has not been forthcoming with global public health officials about the origins of the virus.

Lawmakers touched on other national security challenges facing President Joe Biden, including the war in Afghanistan. Biden is slated to announce later Wednesday that the U.S. will withdraw all troops by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that sent the country into its longest war.

Burns said his agency’s ability to collect intelligence on terror threats emanating from Afghanistan will wane once U.S. troops are gone, but the CIA will “retain a suite of capabilities.”

Republicans and some Democrats have warned that Biden’s decision to withdraw is premature and will allow al Qaeda and the Taliban to develop a stronger foothold in the country.

“I think it's almost certain that al Qaeda will return to Afghanistan, will use it as a safe haven and will use it as a launchpad for terrorist attacks against our country, our people, even potentially here in the homeland,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee.

Senators also pressed the agency chiefs on recent hacks that affected thousands of companies and a number of federal agencies. Members of both parties have suggested they will push for new spy powers to monitor U.S. servers for cyberattacks in the wake of the SolarWinds espionage campaign, which the intelligence agencies suspect was carried out by Russian hackers.

“I don’t like hearing that we have blind spots,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said. “I am not willing to accept that."

However, intelligence leaders consistently said they don’t want new capabilities to hunt in domestic computer networks, a task they say should be left to law enforcement.

“I'm not seeking legal authorities either for NSA or U.S. Cyber Command,” Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who helms both organizations, told the panel.

Instead, he, Haines and Wray suggested it would help to pass a law requiring private companies to notify the federal government when they have been breached. That solution has gained momentum among both Democrats and Republicans since the first public hearing on the massive SolarWinds campaign in February.

“One company reaching out to us promptly after they've been compromised means that all the rest of the companies that are likely to be the next ones hit — we might be able to get in front of it,” Wray said.