House Committee Says U.S. Spy Agencies Are Failing China Challenge
September 30, 2020
WASHINGTON—A House Intelligence Committee report concludes that U.S. spy agencies are failing to meet the multipronged challenge posed by China and calls for changes to focus on pandemics, trade and other issues often given less attention by intelligence professionals.
The report, most of which is classified, portrays the $85 billion-a-year U.S. intelligence community as overly focused on traditional targets such as terrorism and adversaries’ militaries. Pandemics, as evidenced by the coronavirus, and China’s technological prowess in areas like artificial intelligence present an equal threat, according to a summary of the report released Wednesday.
The report recommends fundamental changes in the way intelligence agencies operate, including providing greater support to the Commerce Department, the National Science Foundation, public health organizations and other agencies outside the usual national security bureaucracy.
“Absent a significant and immediate reprioritization and realignment of resources, we will be ill-prepared to compete with China—diplomatically, economically, and militarily—on the global stage for decades to come,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.).
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates the work of 17 U.S. intelligence organizations, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The report and two others published this week are part of a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that new thinking and bipartisan support are required to address Beijing’s challenge to U.S. global primacy. The reports and their findings suggest that harder-line China policies are likely to prevail in the coming years, whether in a second Trump term or in a Biden administration.
The China Task Force, a group of 15 Republican members of Congress, in its own report calls China the “greatest national and economic security challenge of this generation.” It offers more than 400 recommendations, ranging from providing safe harbor to people fleeing China’s democracy crackdown in Hong Kong to working on a trade agreement with Taiwan.
The task force, headed by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said it gave priority to recommendations with bipartisan support, many of which have been included in legislation that has been passed by either the House or the Senate.
Another report, from a bipartisan House Armed Services Committee group named the Future of Defense Task Force, calls for a “whole-of-nation strategy addressing the rise of China,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), who headed the group alongside Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass).
The report urges the Defense Department to rethink national security, including by investing in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biotechnology. Many of its suggestions go beyond the Pentagon. For example, it recommends expanding voluntary national service programs to promote engagement in U.S. democracy.
The House Intelligence Committee report says intelligence agencies failed to adapt to “a changing geopolitical and technological environment increasingly shaped by a rising China and the growing importance of interlocking nonmilitary transnational threats.”
While Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups also pose threats, “it was China, however, that has used the past two decades to transform itself into a nation potentially capable of supplanting the United States as the leading power in the world,” says the report, called “The China Deep Dive.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately provide comment on the reports. Beijing has repeatedly said China’s development benefits world peace and prosperity. “We don’t intend to and will not pose any threat to other countries,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week.
With the coronavirus’s emergence in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, many former senior intelligence officials have argued that the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies must devote greater attention to “soft” issues such as infectious diseases and climate change.
The House Intelligence Committee report echoes that assessment, saying safeguarding U.S. national security requires the capability to detect outbreaks of diseases “as the utter devastation of the pandemic has brought home.”
The document’s executive summary provides little detail of intelligence agencies’ capabilities for spying on China, what gaps exist or the agencies’ performance in recent years.
The report cites China’s efforts to expand political and economic influence; its growing investment in advanced weapons; advances in artificial intelligence and 5G telecommunications; use of “digital authoritarianism” to surveil its population; and operations to steal U.S. secrets and spread disinformation.
Its recommendations include a review of all intelligence spending to weed out programs no longer relevant; creating a cadre of intelligence officers with China-focused expertise; and greater reliance on publicly available information as opposed to covertly acquired intelligence.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say that understanding the coronavirus’s spread in late 2019 was less a matter of stealing secrets from Beijing than of collecting and analyzing posts on Chinese social media and articles in Chinese scientific journals.
For the committee report, commissioned in May 2019, staff from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress participated in an investigation involving hundreds of hours of interviews with intelligence officers, reviewing thousands of intelligence reports and visiting numerous classified facilities in the U.S. and overseas.
Write to Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com and Kate O’Keeffe at firstname.lastname@example.org