National Security Threats Are Many and Varied, Officials Warn Congress

In addition to combatting domestic and global terrorism, the intelligence community is focused on tamping down on the spread of disease and wrangling in foreign adversaries with autocratic aspirations.

This screenshot from a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee shows Avril Haines giving testimony. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — For the first time since 2019, senior intelligence community officials appeared Wednesday before the U.S. Senate to offer an open assessment on threats facing America after a year of pandemic, upticks in domestic violent extremism and sweeping cybersecurity breaches.  

“The world will face more intense and cascading global challenges,” a stoic Avril Haines, head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, told members of Congress on Wednesday.

The novel coronavirus pandemic — which has killed 3 million worldwide and over half a million in America — has had major ramifications for national security, trade, diplomacy, the economy and more.

And, according to Haines, it has most poignantly and abruptly exposed the “high-level risk of interdependence” among powerful entities like the U.S. and China.

Trust between the nations is increasingly strained a year on from the outbreak, and intelligence officials were forthcoming Wednesday that there are still questions about where the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 originated. A recent World Health Organization joint inquiry with China has done little to allay concerns since its findings were inconclusive.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican member on the Select Committee on Intelligence, asked Director Haines if she felt it was accurate to say the U.S. is still in the dark about where, when or how transmission first began.

“It is absolutely accurate,” Haines said.

Haines did, however, discourage wild conspiracy theorizing, noting the intelligence community itself only accepts two hypotheses as realistic or probable based on their year of close monitoring: The outbreak was either naturally occurring and the result of infected animal to human contact, or it emerged accidentally from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week called for a broader investigation into China’s role in the early stages of the pandemic following the release of the joint report from China and the WHO.

In Wednesday’s declassified session with lawmakers — a classified hearing immediately follows — FBI Director Christopher Wray also expressed concern over China’s “economic espionage” activities in the U.S.

At present, Wray said the FBI has 2,000 open investigations tying back to the Chinese government. Illegal financial activity from China has seen a 1,300% uptick in the last year, he added.

“We’re opening a new investigation into China every 10 hours, and I can ensure the committee that is not because our folks don’t have anything better to do with their time,” Wray said.

The Biden administration has assumed a tough posture with China. Biden just last week said China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin share “autocratic” aspirations.

The U.S. has also sanctioned dozens of Chinese officials since Biden entered the White House over manipulation of the electoral system in Hong Kong.

While intelligence officials met in Washington on Wednesday, Biden also sent its first delegation to Taiwan, a sovereign nation long at odds with neighboring giant China. The Wall Street Journal reported that complaints from Chinese officials about the visit were filed with the U.S.

China is far from America’s only national security concern.

The FBI also now has 200 joint terrorism task forces actively investigating homegrown jihadists and domestic violence extremists around the country.

Wray underscored the countless parallels between entities like al-Qaida and the Islamic State and domestic terrorist networks in America, in terms of recruitment, planning, training and dissemination of propaganda.

“Terrorism today, and that includes domestic violence extremism, moves at the speed of social media,” he said.

The FBI director also confirmed the FBI has, as of Wednesday, arrested at least five self-identified adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory who were tied to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, pressed the director for a timeline on when the FBI would declassify and share publicly an FBI report on the threat of QAnon to national security.

Wray said investigations was still going but that a fully unclassified version would be available soon.

Heinrich also asked the FBI head for information on legal repercussions for Ron Watkins, a  former administrator for the online message board 8kun. Watkins’ potential role in the extremist conspiracy theory may have been inadvertently exposed in a recent HBO documentary, “Q: Into the Storm,” that concluded earlier this month.

Wray hedged when Watkins’ name came up, telling the senator the FBI would need to be “very careful” differentiating between what is criminal and what is not as investigations continue.

“We have to be careful to be focused on violence and things that violate federal criminal law. It doesn’t mean rhetoric isn’t a societal problem that doesn’t need to be addressed, but from the law enforcement perspective, we try to be careful to focus on threats of violent and criminal activity. Language can be part of a conspiracy in certain cases. … It’s a complicated question, and I would refer to the lawyers at the Department of Justice.”

As for the White House’s newly announced decision to draw down troops from Afghanistan entirely, Democrats and Republicans expressed apprehension. Maine Senator Susan Collins asked CIA Director William Burns if he felt the Taliban could regain territory or power with a U.S. troop withdrawal at this magnitude.

“We have to be clear-eyed about the reality when looking at the potential terrorism challenge that both al-Qaida and ISIS present,” Burns said, using another name for the Islamic State group.

Terrorists will remain in Afghanistan intent on recovering their ability to attack U.S. targets whether it is in the region, in the West or in the homeland, the director said.

But after years of sustained counterterrorism pressure in the region, Burns said the likelihood the groups could sustain themselves is low.  

“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact. It is also a fact, however, after withdrawal, that the CIA and all of its partners will retain a suite of capabilities in place,” Burns said. “Some will help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort.”

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