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Spy chiefs say Chinese, Russian cyber strengths are top threats to U.S.

From left, FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, DNI Director Dan Coats, DIA Director Robert Ashley, NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Director Robert Cardillo testify during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “Worldwide Threats” on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, DNI Director Dan Coats, DIA Director Robert Ashley, NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Director Robert Cardillo testify during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “Worldwide Threats” on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

China and Russia possess cyber technologies they will increasingly unleash on U.S. companies, the military, election systems and critical infrastructure, and that poses a significant threat to national security, Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence panel in an annual hearing called the Worldwide Threat Assessment.

“At present, China and Russia pose the greatest espionage and cyberattack threats,” but other countries are catching up, the director of National Intelligence told the committee Tuesday. 

North Korea and Iran have such capabilities too, and all these adversaries “threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways — to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure,” Coats said. North Korea poses cyber threats to financial institutions around the world, he said.

Top lawmakers also highlighted the threats posed by advanced internet-enabled technologies that often outstrip dangers from conventional and nuclear weapons.

Emerging threats will come from “deep-fakes, artificial intelligence, and a 5G enabled Internet of Things with billions of internet-connected consumer devices,” said Sen. Richard M. Burr, the chairman of the committee. Elections and countries can be attacked without using bombs and missiles, Burr said, noting that a social media account that any “13-year-old can establish for free” can be just as effective.

China, Russia and others are looking to the 2020 federal elections to see how they can influence the outcome to their advantage, Coats said.

Russia is refining its approach by learning lessons from its interference in the 2016 election, Coats said. In 2016, the Kremlin deployed dozens of Russians to create fake social media accounts and amplify divisions among American voters that likely influenced the outcome.

“Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians,” Coats said. Moscow may also employ other methods, including the spread of misinformation, hack and leak policies, and manipulation of data “in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy.” 

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the panel, said that while Russia was unsuccessful in manipulating the 2018 election, “this certainly does not mean that we are out of the woods” or that the intelligence agencies “can relax.”

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico complained that the DNI has yet to give the Senate panel a written report on its assessment of interference in the 2018 election, while the White House has been provided with such a report. Coats said he has provided oral briefings to Burr and Warner and a written report will be provided soon.

Social media

Though social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google failed to recognize and respond to Russian efforts in the 2016 election, since then the companies have been more cooperative and willing to act on tips shared by U.S. intelligence agencies, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the lawmakers.

“One of the bright spots between 2016 and 2018 is how much more cooperative we are in working with social media companies,” Wray said. Based on information provided by intelligence agencies and the FBI, “social media companies were able to take action to block and prevent information warfare the Russians were engaged in” during the 2018 midterm elections.

China is also using a broad array of tools, including providing financial aid to U.S. universities, hacking, stealing information on American citizens, and stealing U.S. intellectual property to gain an advantage over the U.S., Wray said.

His comments come as the Justice Department on Monday charged China’s Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest telecom company, for stealing U.S. technology and for violating U.S. sanctions policy aimed at Iran. The Justice Department unveiled nearly two dozen indictments against the company, sharpening the ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute.

China “writ large is the most significant counterintelligence threat,” Wray said. China’s counterintelligence threat “is more deep, more vexing, more comprehensive and more challenging than any other” threat he has faced in his career, Wray said.

Warner said that contrary to his belief that an economically advanced China would act like a responsible global citizen, Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power and has adopted a policy that seeks to gain economic advantage by “hook or by crook,” especially in technologies such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, 5G and advanced surveillance.

Warner and GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have proposed legislation that would create an Office of Critical Technologies and Security at the White House, which would coordinate efforts by all departments of the U.S. government to respond effectively to threats posed by China and others.

Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Chris Coons of Delaware and Susan Collins of Maine have cosponsored the bipartisan bill, and companion legislation has been introduced in the House led by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland.

Separately, Coats told the lawmakers that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, which it sees as integral to its power.

“We continue to observe activity inconsistent with full denuclearization,” Coats said, even as President Donald Trump is preparing to hold a second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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