Senators press spy agencies to focus on China’s technological advances

FBI director says no country 'presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideas' than China

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., speaks during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on April 14. (Getty Images)
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., speaks during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on April 14. (Getty Images)
Posted April 14, 2021 at 2:10pm

Key lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee told top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials Wednesday that their agencies must focus their efforts on a variety of technology advances by China that threaten American economic and global leadership.

More than a dozen agencies that together comprise the U.S. intelligence community must develop “the ability to look into where China is rising in a series of areas of technology development. … How do we get that?” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the committee, said at a hearing.

Warner said the U.S. spy agencies appeared to be “a little bit asleep at the switch” in missing the emergence of China’s telecommunications company, Huawei. Starting in about 2018, the company developed and launched a relatively inexpensive 5G telecom package that left the United States and its allies scrambling to stop it from becoming a global standard for the next generation of cellular telephony.

In the absence of a specific panel focused on technologies, Senate Intelligence has become the default committee in the chamber focused on several technological areas that relate to American competitiveness, including semiconductor manufacturing, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G, Warner said.

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Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the committee that the spy agencies collectively are focused on a “whole series of technology sectors where China is increasingly catching up to us … and where we see that they are contesting our leadership, in effect.”

To inform and advise lawmakers and other policymakers about the kinds of technological advances China is making, the intelligence agencies “need to be as smart about technology as any other part of the U.S. government … and I think that is something we have been working on, bringing in the expertise we need to the intelligence community,” Haines said.

Those efforts include hiring technology experts as well as collaborating with American companies to understand the latest technologies and their effects, she said.

Haines appeared before the Intelligence Committee along with CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier. The officials were appearing before the panel to present their collective assessment of worldwide threats the United States confronts. The annual hearing was halted last year when the Trump administration refused to allow its officials to testify before lawmakers.

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In the annual threat assessment report released publicly earlier in the week, the spy agencies said, “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 agencies called out China, noting that the country “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.”

In recent years, U.S. policymakers have raised several alarms about China’s technology gains and its long-term goals. They include the 5G offerings from Huawei, which the Trump administration pushed hard to stop U.S. allies from adopting; Beijing’s cyber espionage efforts aimed at stealing Western technologies; and China’s stated commitment to become a global leader in artificial intelligence technologies by 2030.

Technology competition with Beijing is “right at the core of our rivalry with an increasingly adversarial Chinese Communist Party,” Burns said.

At the CIA, two of the agency’s five directorates on digital innovation and science and technology are focused “primarily on tech and cyber issues right now, and nearly one-third of our officers of our entire workforce are focused primarily on the technology and cyber mission,” he said.

The CIA has had some success in working with allies to educate them about the risks of buying and using Huawei's 5G telecom solutions, Burns said.

Despite the agencies’ efforts and some success, the U.S. government as a whole is not working collectively to understand the challenge of China’s technology gains, Warner said.

“I don’t feel like we have that one centralized place to make those assessments about China,” Warner said. Lawmakers on the panel from both parties also are pushing for legislation to create a kind of technology alliance with other democratic nations “to take on this extraordinarily challenging issue with China.”

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., who previously served as the chair of the committee, said the U.S. government’s technology policy “if it exists at all, is stupid.”

Although the intelligence agencies were working to develop their technological capabilities to train their attention on China, there wasn’t a coordinated attempt by all aspects of the U.S. government and allies to confront China, Burr said.

U.S. spy agencies ought to work closely with allies among the Five Eyes countries on matters that go beyond intelligence issues, Burr said. The Five Eyes — the U.K., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States — was conceived in the aftermath of World War II primarily as an intelligence sharing alliance.

FBI Director Wray reiterated his earlier comments that China presents a threat to U.S. leadership unlike any other adversary.

“I don’t think there is any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideas,” Wray said. “The tools in their toolbox to influence our businesses, our academic institutions, our governments at all levels are deep and wide and persistent.”

In recent years, Beijing also has taken to threatening and blackmailing members of the Chinese diaspora in the United States to not act against Chinese interests, Wray said, adding that his agency has more than 2,000 investigations underway dealing with economic espionage alone. Those probes present a “1,300 percent increase over the last several years,” he said.