Biden spy chief nominee acknowledges US stance toward China must ‘evolve’ from Obama years

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President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be the nation’s spy chief acknowledged the U.S. stance toward China must “evolve” from her time during the Obama administration to “meet the reality” of an aggressive Chinese Communist Party.

Avril Haines, Biden’s choice for director of national intelligence, made the comments during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday during questioning by Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who asked the former deputy to CIA Director John Brennan if she had concerns about how the Obama administration approached China, following increased pressure on the Chinese government by the Trump administration.

“I think our approach to China has to evolve and essentially meet the reality of the particularly assertive and aggressive China that we see today. China is a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues, and I do support an aggressive stance … to deal with the challenge that we’re facing,” Haines replied. “So, I think that’s the place that we are now, and one that is more assertive than where we had been in the Obama-Biden administration, and if I’m confirmed, I think, frankly, the intelligence community can do a lot to help in that respect.”

Incoming Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner contended that “perhaps the greatest challenge facing you as DNI will be a rising China.” He pressed Haines on whether she considered China an adversary.

“China is adversarial and an adversary on some issues, and in other issues, we try to cooperate with them, whether in the context of climate change or other things. And ultimately, the frame that the president-elect has identified for thinking about this is as a global competitor,” Haines said. “But I think that doesn’t, to your point, in any way mitigate the fact that when it comes to espionage or a variety of areas, I’ll be focused on if I’m confirmed in the director of national intelligence, they are an adversary.”

Haines would take the helm overseeing the United States’s 18 spy agencies at a tumultuous time.

Barry Zulauf, an intelligence ombudsman, issued a report earlier in January warning politics affected intelligence assessments on Russian and Chinese meddling efforts in 2020. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe contended that “the majority view expressed in this ICA with regard to China’s actions to influence the election fall short of the mark.”

Outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio wanted a commitment from Haines to “orient the intelligence community to comprehensively address the multifaceted national security and counterintelligence threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party” and asked what she’d do about China targeting lawmakers.

“Obviously, the counterintelligence challenge with China is a very important one and priority and something I will need to focus on,” Haines responded, adding that “we need to do more training in this space.”

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse contended the intelligence community has been slow to pivot to the China challenge, and Haines said that she “will absolutely make it a priority from my perspective to make sure we are allocating the right resources and addressing this issue.”

“I’d seen previously there were challenges in trying to actually effect the kind of rebalance of Asia policy that the Obama-Biden administration engaged in, and I think it is true that there … is a natural focus on issues that the intelligence community has been focusing on for some time by career folks who have spent a lot of time working on those issues,” Haines continued, noting much of senior leadership had long focused on counterterrorism, adding that “there isn’t the same level of experience across the intelligence community with respect to Asia, and so that’s another aspect of how sometimes it’s challenging to get folks to focus on new issues and to actually make sure that they’re being prioritized in the way that we all believe they should be.”

Sasse responded that China shouldn’t be “a” priority, but “the” top priority, stressing the need to hire more Mandarin speakers and his desire that spy agencies have more analysts focused on China than counterterrorism.

“I absolutely am happy to commit to you that within six months of being confirmed that I come back to this committee on this issue, and I think, if you’ll allow me, I would work with you on what are the right metrics by which to think that through and to demonstrate that we’ve correctly prioritized it,” Haines said.

Ratcliffe provided a glimpse into this internal intelligence community debate in December during an interview with the Washington Examiner.

“You have analysts that have been here from the Cold War era and are used to it being Russia, or in the last 20 years, it has been about counterterrorism — and again, I’m not minimizing those — but the greatest threat that we face and a greater amount of our focus needs to be on China,” Ratcliffe said.

In the opening statement by Haines, she detailed challenges “from traditional state actors, as well as evolving and critical transnational threats,” such as climate change and cyberattacks, and mentioned the “global COVID-19 crisis.” China was the only country highlighted by name, arguing spy agencies “should provide the necessary intelligence to support long-term bipartisan efforts to out-compete China — gaining and sharing insight into China’s intentions and capabilities, while also supporting more immediate efforts to counter Beijing’s unfair, illegal, aggressive, and coercive actions, as well as its human rights violations.”

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