On March 8, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. The document prompted the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to hold a hearing to discuss the ODNI findings. Testifying before the HPSCI were Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence; William Burns, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; General Paul Nakasone, Commander, US Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency; Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The most recent threat assessment addressed the four most prominent global and regional menaces in order of concern to the United States — China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Discussing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in her opening statement, Director Haines established what faces the US, saying,
“The People’s Republic of China, which is increasingly challenging the United States economically, technologically, politically, and militarily around the world remains our unparalleled priority…In brief, the CCP represents both the leading and most consequential threat to US national security and leadership globally, and its intelligence-specific ambitions and capabilities make it for us our most serious and consequential intelligence rival.”
Unlike past years, the discussion of global threats to the US conveyed a greater sense of foreboding. For example, the assessment’s presentation on Russia took on an urgency underpinned by the ongoing “unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine…Escalation of the conflict to a military confrontation between Russian and the West carries the greater risk, which the world has not faced in decades.” Adding to the threat assessment narrative, Director Haines testified that Russia would not likely make substantial gains in its ground war against Ukraine. As in the past, the Kremlin’s forces suffer from morale, equipment, and logistics problems.
Nonetheless, Haines explained Russian President Putin believes time is on his side. Prolonging the fighting is in Moscow’s best strategic interests. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is designed to “deter the West from providing additional support to Ukraine.”
Haines explained that Iran continues to be a threat in the Middle East as it persists in developing its nuclear capability by producing sufficient fissile material for manufacturing atomic weapons. Moreover, Tehran has announced publicly it is no longer bound by the Obama-era nuclear agreement and will pursue a nuclear capability as it sees fit. Specifically, from the threat assessment language, “Iran will continue to threaten US persons directly and via proxy attacks, particularly in the Middle East. Iran also remains committed to developing surrogate networks inside the United States,” the ODNI threat document states. “Iran remains a threat to Israel, both directly through its missile and UAV forces and indirectly through its support of Lebanese Hizballah, and other partners and proxies.”
Paraphrasing the threat assessment, Haines testified, “North Korea similarly remains a proliferation concern as it continues its efforts to steadily expand and enhance its nuclear and conventional capability targeting the United States and our allies.” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s testing of short-, medium-, and long-range missiles destabilizes the region and poses a significant threat to US allies and friends. The threat assessment reveals that North Korea is preparing to test a nuclear weapon in the very near future.
The HPSCI did not challenge the conclusions of the Intelligence Community’s findings but instead used the assessment as a springboard to explore related issues. Rep Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) asked about the influx of fentanyl and potential bioweapons. Wenstrup zeroed in on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, asking Haines if she would commit to providing the committee the underlying report data and analysis from the Department of Energy supporting its conclusion that the SAR-CoV-2 coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab. Although Haines agreed to share the data, “it would have to be in classified form,” she said. On the issue of revealing the names of those individuals to whom the IC talked about the pandemic origin, Haines was reluctant to agree. “Often for many academics, we consult with, it’s not something they want to be known as consulting with the intelligence community,” Haines explained.
An area of the IC responsibility receiving scrutiny by the committee was the need to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Section 702, which authorizes “targeted intelligence collection of specific types of foreign intelligence information.” As did others on the committee, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) wanted assurance that the FISA Section 702 authorities would not be abused as they had been during the Russia hoax investigation against former President Donald Trump. FBI Director Wray responded with, “Absolutely we’ve made mistakes… We’re determined to be worthy of all Americans’ trust.” To Rep. Mike Gallagher’s question about China’s cyber capability, Wray responded, “The Chinese government has the biggest hacking program in the world – bigger than every other nation combined.”
The IC Annual Threat Assessment provides Americans with a straightforward look at what the 17 intelligence agencies believe is significant in preserving US national security. Often what the assessment has to say is scary. But if accurate, Americans should want it to be scary.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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