March 28, 2023

The actions and intentions of the Chinese government are likely to be a central focus when top U.S. intelligence leaders testify on global security threats this week, as questions linger about Beijing’s potential plan to send lethal aid to Russia, its role in obfuscating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aim of its recently discovered surveillance balloon program, which dramatically heightened tensions with the U.S.

The annual worldwide threats hearings take place Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee and Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee, and feature testimony from Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier. 

The hearings offer a rare opportunity for lawmakers and the public to hear directly from intelligence leaders, whose agencies do not offer regular press briefings and whose activities and budgets are partly or mostly classified.  

Leaders’ testimony will coincide with the release of a comprehensive yearly intelligence community report that serves as an unclassified scene-setter for national security priorities. Last year’s assessment – which was released before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine – said “competition and potential conflict between nation-states remains a critical national security threat,” citing increasingly belligerent signals from Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang.  

Sen. Angus King, independent of Maine who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a briefing for reporters Tuesday that he had read this year’s report and found it “sobering.” 

“My recommendation is, don’t read it just before you go to sleep,” King said. 

Among the topics expected to be raised in the hearings are the threat of nuclear proliferation, the risks of another global pandemic, current terrorism hotspots, and the increasingly destabilizing effects of climate change. Recent intelligence community reports on the possibility that COVID-19 was the result of a lab accident and the cause of a mysterious neurological affliction known as Havana Syndrome that has sickened hundreds of U.S. officials are also likely topics, as are the reauthorization of a controversial surveillance program referred to as Section 702 and the handling by government officials of classified documents.   

“I want to hear about more than just China,” House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, said Tuesday in a virtual event hosted by the Washington Post. “Because we’ve become so focused on China, we have probably not focused as much as we used to other threats that are ongoing out there.” 

Still, lawmakers of both parties are expected to focus many of their questions on the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China, which Haines last year called an “unparalleled priority” and a “formidable challenge” for the intelligence community. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — launched days before last year’s hearings took place, and now having entered its second year — has absorbed significant resources and attention, intelligence leaders have acknowledged. Still, they have consistently said China remains the U.S.’s top long-term geopolitical challenge. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effective consolidation of power and the obscured visibility into his government’s decision-making processes have complicated the Biden administration’s efforts to improve its relationship with Beijing.

“In that kind of a system, a very closed decision-making system when nobody challenges, you know, the authority of their insights of an authoritarian leader, you can make some huge blunders as well,” CIA Director Burns said in a recent interview on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” adding the agency was working “very hard” to gain insights into Xi’s thinking. 

King, who last year probed leaders on the intelligence community’s ability to assess a given military’s will to fight — citing past flawed assessments of Kabul’s fall during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Ukrainians’ ability to hold off a Russian assault on Kyiv — said that issue would be worth revisiting amid the specter of a China-led invasion of Taiwan.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence later said it would launch a review of the community’s ability to assess foreign militaries’ resilience. 

“It’s an issue that isn’t going to go away. And as we’ve learned about Afghanistan and Ukraine, it’s one of the most important data points. It’s one of the hardest to quantify, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” King said. 

“As we’re talking about Taiwan, I think that’s a very relevant question that we in the Congress and the president should have, before making final decisions about what level of commitment there should be,” he said. 

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