National Security

Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats hearing

The nation's top intelligence leaders faced sharper political questions during a House hearing on global security threats, with lawmakers as focused on rehashing issues from the Trump era as future threats.

The tone was set early when House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) opened the hearing by severely criticizing committee Democrats for steps taken against former President Trump over the past several years, and claiming intelligence officials had not testified over the past two years due to these actions. 

"The real reason Trump officials didn't want to participate is that for years the committee's Democrats hijacked our open hearings to advance their conspiracy theories that the Trump administration was filled with Russian agents who colluded with Putin to hack the 2016 elections," Nunes said.

Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) stressed by comparison in his opening remarks that it was "important to speak truth to power," even if "intelligence assessments prove politically inconvenient."

"The American people will learn about threats to U.S. security, no matter what the circumstances - including when the IC's views might not comport with a president's preferences," Schiff said.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, along with the leaders of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), were all present for the hearing. The five witnesses appeared before the Senate Intelligence panel Wednesday.

FBI Director Christopher Wray bore the brunt of the questioning, with lawmakers of both parties using the hearing to batter him for the FBI's past investigation of Trump associates as well as ongoing issues at an agency criticized for its lack of diversity. 

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) pressed him for updates on the FBI's approach to sexual assault and harassment, while Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) bashed the bureau for its handling of warrants when investigating Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

"You've promised the American people you would address these failures, in fact you just recently said, 'The FBI does the right thing the right way.' I just wonder when will someone be held accountable for this abuse," Crawford said. 

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) accused the FBI of not taking damage done by protesters in Portland as seriously as actions taken by those involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Republican lawmakers at multiple times during the hearing pressured Wray to clarify the FBI's view of antifa and the threat posed by those holding such beliefs.

Wray called antifa "a real thing, it is not fiction" in describing it as a form of anti-government extremism, but said those holding the beliefs had not yet organized into a national group.

"There's a tendency on the part of people to want to view, how structured and organized something is as a proxy for how seriously threatening it is or isn't. And two things don't necessarily conflate," he said.

"That does not mean that they're any less dangerous or less threatening," he added. "We have seen organized tactical activity at the local and regional level."

He also faced questions on what the bureau is doing to protect lawmakers.

In addressing the two bombs placed at each party's headquarters Jan. 6, Wray identified the matter as an aspect of the broader investigation "that we are most concerned about and [it is] viewed in certain respects as one of the most serious pieces of it."

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) additionally outlined concerns around the FBI's handling of the 2017 shooting at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., of multiple Republican members of the House, which took place prior to Wray's FBI leadership.

"Mr. Wray, when you were nominated I hoped you would bring about change for the FBI," Wenstrup said. "Instead I am concerned that things have further degraded, and I would ask what you intend to do about the reputation of the FBI and the distrust the American people have."

Wray stressed that he had been "committed since I started this job to make sure the FBI does the right thing in the right way," and noted that the amount of individuals applying to work for the FBI had tripled since he took office. 

Beyond concerns around the FBI, the hearing also gave members an opportunity to dig into a number of national security threats. 

A key issue were concerns around both Russian and Chinese malicious cyber activity against the U.S., particularly as the hearing was held the same day the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russia in retaliation for the SolarWinds hack and Russian election interference.

Several members of the committee questioned the intelligence leaders on whether the sanctions did enough to deter Russian malicious behavior. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the NSA, described the sanctions as a positive step in light of increasing threats. 

"One of the things that we as a nation have to understand is that our adversaries today are operating with scope, scale, sophistication that is unlike what we have seen before, and it requires us, us within the government, us within the private sector to raise the bar, to make it that much more difficult, to have resiliency, and obviously to act," Nakasone testified. 

Much of the conversation focused on threats from China, specifically its role in the COVID-19 pandemic, with heads of the various intelligence agencies repeatedly reiterating the lack of any evidence that the COVID-19 virus was created in a lab. 

Intelligence officials said they've largely reached that conclusion without relying on Chinese information.

"I think it is clear that the Chinese government was not fully forthcoming or transparent especially very early on in the pandemic, when, you know, transparency, and being forthcoming might have made a much bigger difference for the rest of the world," CIA Director William Burns said. 

Burns also underlined the gravity of the increasing threats posed by China across a variety of sectors and fields, testifying that "China poses the single biggest geopolitical test for the United States as far out into the 21st century as I can see."

Russia's growing military presence near its border with Ukraine also spurred questions. 

"We see it as more of a show of force and an effort to intimidate both Ukraine in a sense and the United States," Haines told lawmakers.

DIA Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier added that they "have placed themselves in a posture where it's given them options."