U.S. spy chiefs contradict Trump on what threatens U.S.
Russia, China seen as biggest threat, North Korea unlikely to give up nuclear capabilities
China and Russia pose the biggest risks to the United States and are more aligned than they have been in decades, U.S. intelligence leaders told senators on Tuesday, in testimony that repeatedly contradicted President Donald Trump's statements on global threats.
While Beijing and Moscow seek to expand their global reach, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, some American allies are pulling away from Washington in reaction to changing U.S. policies on security and trade.
"China, Russia, Iran and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to 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 in delivering the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment from the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) report.
He testified with the directors of the CIA, FBI and other top intelligence officials at the Senate intelligence committee's annual hearing on worldwide threats.
"Moscow's relationship with Beijing is closer than it's been in many decades," Coats told the panel.
The intelligence chiefs' assessments broke with some past assertions by their boss, including on the threat posed by Russia to U.S. elections and democratic institutions and North Korea's determination to denuclearize.
Coats said North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and has continued activity inconsistent with pledges to denuclearize. Trump has said the country no longer poses a threat.
The White House has said Trump will hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un around the end of February, but economic sanctions will be maintained.
On Jan. 19 Trump said he had had "an incredible" meeting with North Korea's nuclear envoy Kim Yong Chol in Washington and the two sides had made "a lot of progress" on denuclearization.
The intelligence officials also said Iran was not developing nuclear weapons in violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, even though Tehran has threatened to reverse some commitments after Trump pulled out of the deal.
Allies pull away
Senators expressed deep concern about current threats.
"Increased co-operation between Russia and China — for a generation that hasn't been the case — that could be a very big deal on the horizon in terms of the United States," said Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Coats also said some U.S. allies are seeking more independence, responding to their perceptions of Washington's changing policies on security and trade, and "are becoming more open" to new partnerships.
"The post-World War Two international system is coming under increasing strain amid continuing cyber and WMD proliferation threats, competition in space and regional conflicts," Coats said, using the acronym for weapons of mass destruction.
The officials painted a multifaceted picture of the threat posed by China, as they were questioned repeatedly by senators about the No. 2 world economy's business practices as well as its growing international influence.
"The Chinese counter-intelligence threat is more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of," FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
Sen. Richard Burr, the committee's Republican chairman, said the government must work with private companies to foster innovation, while balancing concern about security risks. Many lawmakers have blasted technology companies over the past two years for doing too little to fight the spread of false news reports and other misinformation.
Coats said intelligence officials have been travelling around the United States and meeting with corporate executives to
discuss espionage threats from China.
Tuesday's testimony came just a day after the United States announced criminal charges against China's Huawei Technologies, escalating a fight with the world's biggest telecommunications equipment maker and coming days before trade talks between Washington and Beijing.
Coats also said U.S. adversaries likely are already looking to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election, refining their capabilities and adding new tactics.
He said Russia's social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities and criticizing politicians perceived to be anti-Russia.
Sen. Mark Warner, the panel's top Democrat, said he was particularly concerned about Russia's use of social media "to amplify divisions in our society and to influence our democratic processes," and the threat from China in the technology arena.
The Senate intelligence committee is one of several congressional panels, along with special counsel Robert Mueller, that have been investigating whether there were any connections between Trump's 2016 and Russian efforts to influence the election.
Coats declined to respond when Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, asked whether Trump's not releasing records of his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin put U.S. intelligence agencies at a disadvantage.
"To me, from an intelligence perspective, it's just Intel 101 that it would help our country to know what Vladimir Putin discussed with Donald Trump," Wyden said.
Trump denies colluding with Russia, and Russia denies attempting to influence U.S. elections.
The intelligence officials were due to continue testifying to the committee at a classified hearing later on Tuesday.