Biden's National Security Team Lists Leading Threats, With China At The Top

Apr 13, 2021
Originally published on April 13, 2021 10:21 pm

The U.S. intelligence community said Tuesday that it views four countries as posing the main national security challenges in the coming year: China, followed by Russia, Iran and North Korea.

"China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas — especially economically, militarily, and technologically — and is pushing to change global norms," said the report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The report cites China's growing military assertiveness in several regional disputes, including Taiwan, the India-China border and the South China Sea.

"China seeks to use coordinated, whole-of-government tools to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing's preferences, including its claims over disputed territory," the report says.

U.S.-China friction

President Biden has described China as the main challenge to U.S. global leadership in the 21st century, saying Beijing seeks to present its authoritarian model as superior to the U.S. and Western-style democracy.

While the president promised a tough approach toward China on many security and economic issues, he has not spelled out his policies in detail.

The 27-page intelligence report addresses well-known and oft-discussed security questions, though it has taken on added significance this year with a new U.S. administration.

It is the first report released by Biden's new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines. Haines is one of five intelligence and national security chiefs who will testify about the report before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday and the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

These hearings have long been an annual ritual in Washington that brings together officials who rarely make public remarks.

But under pressure from former President Donald Trump, who was often at odds with the intelligence community, the Senate panel did not hold its hearing last year, and the House committee hasn't been able to bring together these officials for a public hearing since 2017.

Russian provocations

Regarding Russia, the report assesses that it "does not want a direct conflict with U.S. forces."

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to continue looking for opportunities to strengthen his position and undermine U.S. interests without provoking a head-on confrontation.

The report cites Russia's ongoing effort to assist rebel forces in Ukraine, military assistance in Syria and Libya, and continued economic and political support for Venezuela and Cuba.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. and Iran attempt to revive a nuclear deal with talks in Vienna, the intelligence report weighed in on the status of Tehran's nuclear program.

"We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device," the report said.

Still, it noted that Iran has been hurting economically since the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions.

"If Tehran does not receive sanctions relief, Iranian officials probably will consider options" that could include enriching uranium to higher levels or building a new heavy water reactor, the report noted. Those moves would reduce the amount of time Iran needs to build nuclear weapons.

North Korea's nuclear program was also cited as a cause for concern.

"North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may take a number of aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions ... up to and including the resumption of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing," the report said.

For nearly two decades, the national security establishment focused on U.S. wars in the Middle East and the threats posed by extremist groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS.

The Trump administration shifted the emphasis to great power rivalries, particularly China. The Biden administration is expected to keep this focus as well but is also expected to devote more attention to threats that include cybersecurity, domestic extremism and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cyber intrusions

Those testifying on Capitol Hill this week include the director of the National Security Agency, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who is sure to be asked about the state of cybersecurity following two major breaches.

Some 18,000 organizations, including nine U.S. government agencies, were hit last year in the SolarWinds hack. Russia is widely believed responsible, and Biden is expected to announce his response shortly.

In addition, a hack of the Microsoft Exchange email system penetrated thousands of U.S. organizations as well, though it has received much less attention than the SolarWinds breach. Cyber experts say China is believed to be responsible.

Another pressing question is the status of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

A senior administration official said Tuesday that Biden will begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan before May 1 and finish no later than Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

About 2,500 troops are still in Afghanistan, with reports that there are as many as 1,000 more special operations forces in the country.

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China's push for global power is the top foreign threat to national security. That's according to the U.S. intelligence community, which released its annual Worldwide Threat Assessment report today. And tomorrow, five national security chiefs will go to Capitol Hill to testify as a group. For more, we're joined now by NPR's Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.


CHANG: All right. So before we dive into the details of this report, this testimony from the top intel officials - I mean, that was once a ritual in Washington, right? Why haven't we seen these hearings recently?

MYRE: Well, there was this constant friction between former President Trump and his hand-picked intelligence chiefs. One of the more memorable moments came in January 2019 when they testified and often in direct contradiction to what the president was claiming, like whether or not North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. The president suggested they might; the intelligence chiefs said no. Trump was furious. He took to Twitter. So this was the last time we had these hearings. But on Wednesday and Thursday, these five national security chiefs, including the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, are set to testify before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Now, it's going to be foreign focused, but the FBI director, Christopher Wray, will also be among them and is expected to talk about domestic extremism.

CHANG: OK. Let's dig into some of the details in this report. The threat posed by the Chinese government is getting most of the attention. Tell us why.

MYRE: It says - the report says that China is seeking to create, quote, "new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system." And this is very much in keeping with what President Biden has said. He says China is trying to present its system as a better model than the U.S. or Western-style democracy. The report cites recent concrete actions that point to this more assertive Chinese military, this probing of defenses around Taiwan, border clashes with India last year and a Chinese naval buildup in the South China Sea, just to cite a few examples.

CHANG: OK. Well, turning elsewhere in the report - not surprisingly, Russia also has a prominent role in this document. What does it say about the threat there?

MYRE: So the intelligence community is assessing that Russia does not want any kind of direct conflict with the U.S., but President Vladimir Putin will keep looking for ways to undermine American interests without provoking some sort of head-on confrontation. This would include supporting separatists in Ukraine or military assistance to Syria, Libya, things like that that he's done very successfully for quite a few years.

CHANG: OK, obviously, this report covers a lot of ground. Can you just tell us what else struck you?

MYRE: Yeah, two things. It goes on at some length about the potential fallout still to come from COVID, that is creating economic distress, which contributes to political pressures and uncertainties. So it's not just a medical problem, but a national security issue. And the second is the Middle East and Afghanistan, which have been at the heart of national security projects like this for the past two decades. They rate only a very brief mention in this report.

CHANG: Interesting. That is NPR's Greg Myre.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.