US intelligence chiefs testify on China's influence and challenges of investigating COVID-19

The hearing also touched on possible risks from TikTok and more.

March 8, 2023, 2:00 PM

Intelligence chiefs from across the U.S. government faced a grilling on Wednesday from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the origins of COVID-19 and China's influence in the world, along with other topics.

The annual hearing on worldwide threats included testimony from, among others, the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone.

"The People's Republic of China, which is increasingly challenging the United States economically, technologically, politically and militarily around the world, remains our unparalleled priority," Haines said.

She said Chinese President Xi Jinping, embarking on an unprecedented third term as his country's leader, will continue to work toward a goal of making China "the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage."

China's ruling Community Party, Haines said, "is increasingly convinced that it can only do so at the expense of U.S. power and influence and by using coordinated whole-of-government tools to demonstrate strength and compel neighbors to acquiesce to its preferences, including its land, sea and air claims in the region and its assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan."

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said China's military capabilities "are advancing very, very rapidly in every ... warfighting domain that exists."

"The Defense Intelligence Agency is taking note of that and watching very carefully," Berrier said.

PHOTO: Intelligence chiefs prepare to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2023.
From left, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director General Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, prepare to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2023.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

On COVID-19, Wray reaffirmed his bureau's assessment that the origin of the pandemic was likely a lab leak incident in Wuhan, China, a position he also voiced recently on Fox News.

But Haines, speaking next, said there is not yet agreement across the intelligence community on the virus' origins.

"There's a broad consensus in the intelligence community that the outbreak is not the result of a bioweapon or genetic engineering," she said. "What there isn't a consensus on is whether or not it's a lab leak, essentially as Director Wray indicated, or natural exposure to an infected animal."

Pressed on the matter by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Haines detailed some of the conflicting views.

"There are four elements plus our National Intelligence Council that assess with low confidence that the infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an infected animal," she said, adding, "We have the FBI, as you noted, that sees it as more likely that it's a lab leak and has done that with moderate confidence. And the Department of Energy has changed its view slightly with low confidence. It says that a lab leak is most likely, but they do so for different reasons than the FBI does. And their assessments are not identical."

"So you can see how challenging this has been across the community," Haines said.

On TikTok -- the immensely popular video-sharing app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance -- Wray reiterated the concern among some lawmakers and intelligence officials that the platform could be used to exploit the data of millions of American users.

"So if you were to ask Americans, 'Would you like to turn over your data, all your data, control of your devices, control of your information to the [Chinese Communist Party]?' -- most Americans would say, 'I'm not down with that,' as my kids would say," Wray testified.

On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, unveiled a bill that would empower the president to ban TikTok and maybe other Chinese technology in the United States -- a measure with White House and bipartisan congressional support.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2023.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Congress' intelligence committee leaders have been briefed by officials on a multitude of issues, including the suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S. before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina in February and classified documents found at the homes and offices of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said at Wednesday's hearing that he wasn't satisfied with the lack of information the panel has gotten on the classified documents issue. He asked Haines and Wray why they haven't personally reviewed all of the classified documents found at the residences of Trump, Biden and Pence to assess what risk their apparent mishandling could have posed to national security.

Both Wray and Haines said they've reviewed some of the classified materials but not all.

"When we get documents that have been compromised in the context of a leak investigation or other things like that, I don't personally review them generally, even when they have significant consequences. There are the subject-matter experts within the institutions that do that. They provide their views and then they typically will summarize or otherwise indicate issues that have to be addressed as a consequence, if there are any," Haines said.

Other topics covered at Wednesday's hearing included Russia's strategy in Ukraine, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, North Korea and more.

In one barbed moment, Cotton took exception to a passage in an annual assessment report released by Haines' office on Wednesday: "Transnational [racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists] continue to pose the most lethal threat to U.S. persons and interests, and a significant threat to a number of U.S. allies and partners through attacks and propaganda that espouses violence."

"Are you serious? You seriously think that racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists are the most lethal threat that Americans face?" he asked.

"Yes, sir, in terms of the number of people killed or wounded as a consequence," Haines replied. She could not offer a number of victims off-hand when asked.

FBI Director Christopher Wray shakes hands with Senator and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Mark Warner, before a hearing on worldwide threats, in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2023.
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Cotton then brought up the high number of U.S. fentanyl deaths, asking, "Isn't that a more lethal threat?"

Haines said, "Absolutely," and clarified the context of the quote from the report -- that it was in comparison to terror threats.

An FBI spokesperson, when asked about the hearing ahead of Wednesday, said Wray would face a number of topics but declined to share anything specific about what the focus would be.

"The hearing will have multiple speakers and cover a variety of topics," FBI spokesperson Christina Pullen told ABC News in an e-mail.

GOP senators on Monday also sent a letter to Haines demanding they receive an intelligence briefing on the origins of COVID-19.

"We write to request that you immediately deliver to Congress each [intelligence community] assessment used and relied upon by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for its consensus publications," wrote Republican Sens. Collins, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Roger Marshall of Kansas.

"Congress should be able to review the independent evaluations without filters, ambiguity or interpretations of the intelligence," they wrote. 'There is clear bipartisan support in Congress to make these assessments available immediately in full as evidenced by the unanimous March 1, 2023 Senate passage of the COVID-19 Origin Act to declassify information related to the origin of COVID-19."