Intelligence leaders warn of threats from China, domestic terrorism
Intelligence leaders warned Wednesday of growing threats from China and domestic terrorism fueled by misinformation on social media at a hearing on worldwide threats to the nation.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee grilled Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, along with the leaders of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, on threats ranging from pulling troops out of Afghanistan, to disinformation and domestic terrorism, to cyberattacks.
The hearing, which lasted just under three hours and was mostly bipartisan in nature, stood in stark contrast to the last worldwide threats briefing in 2019, when intelligence leaders testified on issues including election interference and North Korean nuclear threats that contradicted some of former President Trump’s stances.
The worldwide threats hearing was abandoned under the Trump administration.
The threats discussed during the hearing and detailed in the 2021 Worldwide Threats Assessment released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence centered on China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
“I would venture to guess that 90 something percent, if not more, of our threats can be tracked to one of five things: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, or global terrorism,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the panel’s ranking Republican.
“Those five sources comprise a substantial percentage of all the challenges we face,” he added.
Threats from China, particularly in the area of technological competition, were a major focus of both the annual assessment and questions Wednesday.
“I don’t think there is any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideas,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. He at one point said a new investigation is opened related to China every 10 hours.
Haines described China as an “unparalleled priority for the Intelligence Community,” describing it as “increasingly a near-peer competitor” to the United States.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and other senators stressed that concerns around the Chinese government’s policies were completely separate from the Chinese people or Chinese Americans, particularly after increased discrimination against Asian Americans.
“I want to caution our fellow Americans that false equivalencies only breed suspicion, division, and hate … and play right into Beijing’s hands,” Warner said.
Domestic terrorism also played a bigger role in the hearing after the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol.
Wray warned that the echo chamber of social media was exacerbating the problem.
“Social media has become, in many ways, the key amplifier to domestic violence extremism, just as it has for malign foreign influence,” he said.
“People need to understand better what information is that they’re reading,” he added. “A great level of discerning skepticism is a crucial ingredient, not just to protect from foreign misinformation, but also from violent extremism. There is all sorts of stuff out there on the internet that poses as fact, which just isn’t.”
Wray was criticized by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) during the hearing for failing to release a report the FBI compiled on QAnon, a far-right conspiracy alleging there is global child sex-trafficking ring that plotted against President Trump while he was in office.
“Why is it that you cannot or won’t tell the American people directly about the threat that adherence to the QAnon conspiracy theory presents?” Heinrich said.
The FBI has previously resisted pushes from Democrats to focus more directly on the political and racial beliefs of those it investigates.
Wray said the FBI has to be careful to stay focused on activity that could spur violence or violate federal law.
“That doesn’t mean that rhetoric isn’t a societal problem that doesn’t need to be addressed,” he said.
Warner opened the hearing by emphasizing the need for transparency with the public on threats to national security, criticizing former Trump administration intelligence leaders for not testifying on these issues.
“I was dismayed last year when the Director of National Intelligence refused to appear in public before our committee for this hearing and I am pleased that we are resuming this annual tradition,” Warner said after describing the importance of such hearings.
Some lawmakers during the hearing pushed for intelligence agencies to have greater authority to block malicious actors, something agencies have resisted in light of civil liberty concerns.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) referenced foreign efforts to undermine everything ranging from infrastructure to elections.
“These are serious, serious issues, and I don’t like hearing that we have blind spots,” she said.
The intelligence leaders will return to Capitol Hill on Thursday to testify on the same wide variety of threats before the House Intelligence Committee.