The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on 14 April 2021 titled “Worldwide Threats” on the expected global risks and threats President Joe Biden’s administration is likely to face during the coming period. The hearing coincided with the release of this year’s intelligence threat assessment report containing the views of the United States (US) intelligence community on the major security challenges facing Biden, particularly those related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same vein, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) issued the forward-looking report it sets forth every four years to chart future scenarios and reveal challenges that could face new American administrations when they take office. At the same time, Congress discussed a bill to counter Chinese influence.
The hearing included remarks by National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency (NSA) Director Paul Nakasone, and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Scott Berrier.
Background of the Senate hearing
1- Release of the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment Report
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment Report on 9 April 2021. The report includes the views of the US intelligence community on the major security challenges President Biden is expected to face during his first year in office, especially given growing problems to do with climate change and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2- Publication of the Global Trends 2040 intelligence report
The CIA’s National Intelligence Council (NIC) recently issued the forward-looking report it issues once every four years, aiming to chart future scenarios and reveal challenges new US administrations may face upon taking office.
The NIC’s report, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World, focused on bringing to light the global challenges and trends the US may face in the coming two decades in order to anticipate and deal with these risks and challenges in a preventative manner. It is the seventh such report since it was launched in 1997.
3- Congress discusses a bill to counter Chinese influence
The hearing comes as Republican and Democratic Senators are drafting a bill with bipartisan support to counter China’s growing influence and competition with the US in the technological field.
Intelligence chiefs are due to testify at a second hearing on global threats before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
The main threats to the Biden administration according to the hearing:
1- China’s growing rise in the international system
While the speakers touched on many challenges facing the US, they focused on the threats and risks posed by Beijing’s aspirations to be a great power in the international system, as this constitutes the main threat to American interests and national security.
In this context, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he does not believe there is any country as dangerous to American democratic values, economic security, and innovation as China. China has many tools to influence US government, business, and academic institutions, in a “deep and wide and persistent” manner.
According to National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, China is a country “unparalleled” in the threats it poses to the US intelligence community. An “epochal geopolitical shift” has taken place in favor of Beijing and at the expense of the US, she said. China is challenging the US government in a number of areas and exerting increasing pressure to reset global norms to accommodate its authoritarian regime.
Haines warned that China “has substantial cyber capabilities that if deployed, at a minimum, can cause localized, temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure in the United States.”
Wray said there are more than 2,000 open investigations tied to the Chinese government in his agency, with a new investigation into Beijing’s actions being opened every 10 hours.
2- Rising frequency of Chinese economic espionage
According to Christopher Wray, cases of economic espionage by the Chinese government against its American counterpart have increased by 1,300% in recent years, according to the FBI.
CIA Director William Burns said rivalry between Washington and Beijing is expected to increase in coming years, especially as China eyes global leadership: “Competition and technology is right at the core of our rivalry.”
3- Lack of knowledge about the origins of COVID-19
The US cannot yet determine when and how COVID-19 passed to humans. Haines said there are two possible scenarios for the outbreak: Either the virus passed from animals to humans, or it spread as the result of an accident at a Chinese factory in the city of Wuhan.
Burns also noted that Beijing has not been transparent in cooperating with the World Health Organization (WHO), has not provided the full original data on the virus, and has refused to communicate with global public health officials.
Burns also stressed that American intelligence is using all the information at its disposal to try to get to the truth about the origin and spread of the virus around the world.
4- Inability to monitor terrorist threats in Afghanistan
In light of President Joe Biden’s decision to fully withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by September, Burns noted that US intelligence agencies’ ability to gather and act on terrorist threats emanating from the country will diminish.
On the other hand, Burns stressed the CIA “will retain a suite of capabilities” allowing it to obtain intelligence in this context, whether by relying upon capabilities that already exist, or developing those that need updating in order to monitor terrorist organizations and prevent them from rebuilding themselves.
Burns stressed that the CIA would go to great lengths to provide some kind of “strategic warning.”
He warned of the dangers of renewed terrorism in Afghanistan as one of the repercussions of the withdrawal of American troops. The CIA’s ability to keep threats emerging from terrorism in Afghanistan under control has largely relied upon the actual presence of American and NATO ally forces on Afghan soil.
5- Need to notify the federal government of cyberattacks
Haines, Wray, and NSA Director General Paul Nakasone proposed pushing a bill to require private companies to warn the federal government when they are subject to a cyberattack. That came after lawmakers pressed them on recent cyberattacks on American institutions.
Burns said the CIA is focusing on cyber issues, with nearly one-third of its staff working in this field.
While both Nakasone and Wray welcomed the possibility of relying upon a number of companies for information on cyber threats to benefit US intelligence agencies, they objected to one Senator’s proposal of including more companies, such as Twitter and Facebook.
6- Spreading threat of “instability” around the world
Haines touched on challenges posed by Iran and its destabilization of the Middle East, as well as those emanating from North Korea in its attempt to threaten Washington and its allies. She also mentioned risks posed by global terrorism, climate change, and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading and contributing to greater international competition and instability.
The current reality requires the US intelligence community to expand the concept of US national security and draw attention to the need for investment in American manpower, institutions, and standards.
7- Risks from social media
Wray held that social media has come to have many negative effects, helping allow foreign influence and domestic extremism to play more violent and sizable roles.
He said, “The things that attract people to it for good reasons are also capable of causing all kinds of damage.”
8- Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine
Burns criticized the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border, warning it was a prelude to “limited military incursions” into Ukraine, ant to send a signal to the US and intimidate Ukrainian leadership. Thus, Washington and its allies should take the matter seriously. He expressed his concern in this context.
Burns stressed that his experience working as a former ambassador to Russia taught him “not to underestimate how President Putin and Russian leadership can throw their weight around,” referring to Russia’s growing role in conflicts around the world.
Finally, the hearing’s speakers agreed that China represents the greatest geopolitical challenge to the US and its national security. China has the capabilities to stir up many challenges for American interests, particularly in view of its ambitious aspirations to lead the international system and change global norms for its authoritarian agenda, its technological development, and its ability to launch cyberattacks.
The speakers also agreed that Russia will continue to try to undermine American influence. They were also of accord on the dangers posed by Iran, North Korea, and other threats, making it incumbent on US intelligence to expand the concept of American national security.