Intel assessment warns of increasing threats from China, Russia

An annual worldwide threats assessment made public by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Tuesday warned of increasing cyber, technological, and military threats from China and Russia, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The report was released ahead of hearings later this week set to be held by the House and Senate Intelligence panels to examine the findings of the intelligence community. The worldwide threats report is meant to be released annually, but the Trump administration failed to release a report publicly in 2020, with the last assessment released in early 2019. 

This year's report identified China and Russia, alongside Iran and North Korea, as continuing to pose major threats to national security, zeroing in on competition with China as a particularly challenging threat to the United States. 

“Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic,” the intelligence agencies wrote. “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.”

The annual report emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue to be the gravest threat to both national and international security, as countries continue to grapple with the fallout from the disruption and death caused by the pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life worldwide, with far-reaching effects that extend well beyond global health to the economic, political, and security spheres,” the report reads. “We expect COVID-19 to remain a threat to populations worldwide until vaccines and therapeutics are widely distributed. The economic and political implications of the pandemic will ripple through the world for years.”

The Global Trends report, released last week by the National Intelligence Council, a wing of the ODNI, similarly identified the pandemic as likely to be one of the greatest drivers of unrest and inequality over the next 20 years.

Both reports also warned that climate change would pose “risks to the economy, heightened political volatility, human displacement, and new venues for geopolitical competition that will play out during the next decade and beyond.” 

The worldwide threats report noted that a range of concerns, including climate change, weapons of mass destruction, and migration posed ongoing national security threats, along with increased use by adversaries of emerging technologies.

In the wake of two major cyber espionage attacks involving Russia and China, the assessment stressed that cyberattacks remained an “acute” threat to national security. 

“Although an increasing number of countries and nonstate actors have these capabilities, we remain most concerned about Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea,” the report reads. “Many skilled foreign cybercriminals targeting the United States maintain mutually beneficial relationships with these and other countries that offer them safe haven or benefit from their activity.”

The report referenced what has become known as the SolarWinds hack, first discovered in December, which U.S. intelligence agencies assessed in January was “likely” carried out by Russian hackers and compromised at least nine agencies and 100 private sector groups. 

The ODNI wrote that the SolarWinds incident “demonstrates Moscow’s capability and intent to target and potentially disrupt public and private organizations in the United States.”

China, which was linked to exploiting recently uncovered vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Exchange Server last month, could potentially pose a more detrimental threat in cyberspace.

The ODNI assessed that “China can launch cyber attacks that, at a minimum, can cause localized, temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure within the United States," and that the nation "conducts cyber intrusions that affect US and non-US citizens beyond its borders" as part of its surveillance operations. 

On the terrorism front, the report identified ISIS and al-Qa‘ida as main foreign terrorist threats to the U.S. but said pressure from the U.S. and allies has “broadly degraded their capability” to conduct attacks inside the United States.

But it warned that domestic terror groups, particularly those unconnected to jihadi terrorist organizations, are increasingly posing a risk.

“US-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate domestic threat,” the report states.

“Violent extremists who espouse an often overlapping mix of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs have the most persistent transnational connections via often loose online communities to like-minded individuals and groups in the West. The threat from this diffuse movement has ebbed and flowed for decades but has increased since 2015.”

The warning follows a sweeping domestic terror review from ODNI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice, ordered by President Biden in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack.

The report is set to be discussed Wednesday during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, and Thursday during a House Intelligence Committee hearing. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and CIA Director William Burns are slated to be among the witnesses at both hearings.

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