US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress Wednesday that Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to press Taiwan and try to undercut US influence in the coming years as he begins a third term as president.
While Beijing has stepped up its public criticism of the US, Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the intelligence community assesses that China still believes it “benefits most by preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States.”
Haines and the other top intelligence officials – CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier and NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone – testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday at the panel’s annual public worldwide threats hearing.
Haines ticked through the global challenges the US faces – from China and Russia to Iran and North Korea – along with the risks related to cyber and technology as well as authoritarian governments.
China was among the top concerns for senators at the hearing, where Haines and the other intelligence chiefs were pressed on everything from China’s global ambitions to the risks of TikTok and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China.
Russia’s war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term intentions were another key issue, as Haines warned that Putin could be digging in for the long haul because the Russian military cannot make territorial gains.
The US intelligence community believes that Russia “probably does not want a direct military conflict with US and NATO forces, but there is potential for that to occur,” according to the unclassified annual threat assessment report of the intelligence community issued on Wednesday that US intelligence leaders testified about.
“Russian leaders thus far have avoided taking actions that would broaden the Ukraine conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders, but the risk for escalation remains significant,” the report says.
Haines said in her testimony that the Ukraine conflict has become a “grinding attritional war in which neither side has a definitive military advantage,” but said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely to carry on, possibly for years.
“We do not foresee the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains, 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,” Haines said.
Haines explained that Russia will likely be unable to sustain even its currently modest level of offensive operations in Ukraine without an additional mandatory mobilization and third-party ammunition sources.
“They may fully shift to holding and defending the territories they now occupy,” said Haines
Haines called Putin’s “nuclear saber-rattling” an attempt to “deter the West from providing additional support to Ukraine.”
“He probably will still remain confident that Russia can eventually militarily defeat Ukraine and wants to prevent Western support from tipping the balance and forcing a conflict with NATO,” she said.
Still, as Russia deals with “extensive damage” from its war in Ukraine, Moscow will grow more dependent on its nuclear, cyber and space capabilities, the US intelligence agencies said in their report.
Heavy losses on the battlefield in Ukraine “have degraded Moscow’s ground- and air-based conventional capabilities and increased its reliance on nuclear weapons,” the report added.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence panel, argued that TikTok presents “a substantial national security threat for the country of a kind that we didn’t face in the past.”
The Chinese government could use TikTok to control data on millions of people and harness the video app to shape public opinion should China invade Taiwan, Wray told the panel Wednesday.
Wray responded affirmatively to questions from Rubio on whether TikTok would allow Beijing widespread control over data and a valuable influence tool in the event of war in the Taiwan Strait.
“The most fundamental piece that cuts across every one of those risks and threats that you mentioned that I think Americans need to understand is that something that’s very sacred in our country — the difference between the private sector and public sector — that’s a line that is nonexistent in the way that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] operates,” Wray said.
Rubio and Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, also pressed the intelligence leaders on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in light of a new Energy Department assessment, made with low confidence, that the pandemic likely was the result of a lab leak in Wuhan.
Haines said the intelligence community is still seeking to collect additional information to determine the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic but reiterated there’s no consensus at this point among US intelligence agencies.
“There’s a broad consensus in the intelligence community that the outbreak is not the result of a bioweapon or genetic engineering. What there isn’t a consensus on is whether or not it’s a lab leak, essentially as Director Wray indicated, or natural exposure to an infected animal,” Haines said.
Collins, a proponent of the lab leak theory, argued that the two theories should not carry the same weight.
“I just don’t understand why you continue to maintain on behalf of the intelligence community that these are two equally plausible explanations. They simply are not,” Collins said.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said that the committee still had “unfinished business” with the investigation into the handling of classified documents, reiterating that the committee still needed to see the documents taken from the offices and homes of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.
“I think I speak for everyone on both sides of the aisle on this committee, we still have unfinished business regarding the classified documents that we need to see in order for this intelligence committee to effectively oversee its job on intelligence oversights,” said Warner during his opening remarks at the committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, asked Haines and Wray why they hadn’t personally looked at all of the classified documents that were found. They responded they had both reviewed some but not all of the documents.
Wray said that he had gone through a “fairly meticulous listing” of all the documents with “detailed information about the contents,” while noting the FBI had teams experienced with mishandling of classified documents cases.
At the end of Wednesday’s public hearing, both Warner and Rubio pressed the intelligence chiefs to give the committee access to the classified documents so they could conduct proper oversight of the intelligence community’s damage assessment on the mishandling of the classified material.
“How can we possibly conduct oversight over whether you’ve assigned the proper risk assessment and over whether the mitigation is appropriate – how can we possibly do that if we don’t know what we’re talking about?” Rubio said. “A special counsel cannot have veto authority over Congress’ ability to do its job. It just can’t happen. It won’t happen. And so it will change the nature of the relationship between this committee.”
Transnational racially and ethnically motivated extremists, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists,”remain the most lethal threat to US persons and interests,” the intelligence community said in its new report.
The report says this largely “decentralized movement” poses “a significant threat to a number of US allies and partners through attacks and propaganda that espouses violence.”
“These actors increasingly seek to sow social divisions, support fascist-style governments, and attack government institutions. The transnational and loose structure of RMVE organizations challenges local security services and creates a resilience against disruptions,” the report states, referring to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist groups.
The report also raises concern that a prolonged conflict in Ukraine could provide foreign racially and ethnically motivated extremists “with opportunities to gain access to battlefield experience and weapons.”
Cotton questioned Haines skeptically about the assessment, arguing that deaths from fentanyl were more lethal in the US. Haines responded that while fentanyl caused more deaths, the report was in relation to terrorism threats.
“But in the context of terrorism, your conclusion is that racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists are a more lethal threat to Americans than ISIS or Al Qaeda or Hezbollah?” Cotton asked.
Haines noted that past reports had made the same assessment, as racially and ethnically motivated extremists were similarly listed as the most lethal threat to US persons and interests in the 2022 version of the intelligence community report.
“It simply is a question of how many people, how many US persons are killed or wounded as a consequence of attacks,” Haines said.
“I find this astonishing,” Cotton said at the end of his questioning.
This story has been updated with additional information Wednesday.