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Intelligence leaders warn of Russian troops near Ukraine and other threats

WASHINGTON – Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border and in Crimea could provide enough force for a limited military incursion, CIA Director William J. Burns told senators on Wednesday as he and other senior officials outlined a series of threats against the United States.

Russia could simply send a signal to the United States or try to intimidate the Ukrainian government, but it had the capabilities to do more, Mr Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“This structure has reached the point where it can also form the basis of limited military intrusion,”

; Burns said. “It’s not just the United States, but our allies must take it very seriously.”

Mr. Burns, along with Avril D. Haines, director of national intelligence and other officials, testified about a number of threats from global powers such as Russia and China, as well as challenges that have been less in focus for intelligence agencies in the past, including domestic extremism and climate change.

In its annual threat assessment report, released Tuesday before the hearing, the intelligence community said China’s push for global power posed a threat to the United States through its aggression in its region, its expansion of its surveillance capabilities and its attempts to dominate technological progress.

Russia has also pushed for an sphere of influence that includes countries that were part of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, the report said.

However, both China and Russia wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the United States, the report said.

Mr. Burns said the Russian actions have prompted internal briefings as well as consultations with allies. President Biden’s appeal on Tuesday to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was intended to “seriously record the seriousness of our concern,” Mr Burns said.

The United States has been tracking Russian troops for some time, at least since the end of March. U.S. officials have said privately that the Russians have not done much to hide their troop build-up, unlike in 2014, when they first attacked Ukraine. It has convinced some, but not all, officials informed by the intelligence that the Russian activities may mostly be for exhibition.

“They could actually go into a series of exercises that started at any time, or they could, if they chose, perhaps make a limited objective attack,” said Lieutenant General Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “We do not know what the intention is right now.”

Both Russia and China have been accused of carrying out cyber operations that compromised broad sections of the software supply chain. Lawmakers asked Ms. Haines and General Paul M. Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency, about the Russian hacking that penetrated nine federal agencies, and another of China that compromised Microsoft Exchange servers. It is expected that the Biden administration will soon respond to the Russian hacking, probably with sanctions and other measures.

Ms Haines said Russia used hacking to sow discord and threaten the United States and its allies. “Russia is becoming more and more capable of harnessing its technological prowess to develop asymmetric capabilities in both the military and the cyberspace to give itself the opportunity to push back and force the United States to meet its interests,” she said.

Lawmakers also raised the issue of a series of mysterious episodes that have hurt diplomats and CIA officers abroad. Some former officials believe Russia is behind the episodes, which they have called attacks.

Mr. Burns said he worked with his colleagues to ensure better medical treatment of CIA officers. He also said he was working to “get to the bottom of the question of what caused these incidents and who could have been responsible.”

Questions about China dominated the previous Senate confirmation hearings for Mrs. Haines and Mr. Burns, and lawmakers again pressed Wednesday for assessments of China and its efforts to steal U.S. technology. Mrs Haines outlined how China is using technological power, economic influence and other bars of power to intimidate its neighbors.

“China is taking a comprehensive approach to demonstrating its growing strength and forcing regional neighbors to meet Beijing’s preferences,” she told senators.

The FBI Director, Christopher A. Wray, also stressed the threat from China. “We open a new survey of China every 10 hours,” he said of the Bureau, “and I can assure the committee, it is not because our people have nothing to do with their time.”

Biden administration officials have said they want intelligence agencies to have a broader view of national security threats.

Ms Haines noted that another recent intelligence report on global trends highlighted how the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, along with technological change, tested “society’s resilience and adaptability.” The “threatening balance,” she said, is forcing intelligence agencies to expand their definition of national security.

But at least one lawmaker, Senator Richard M. Burr, a Republican in North Carolina, also asked a more practical question: How many intelligence officers have received coronavirus vaccines?

Mr. Burns said 80 percent of the CIA’s workforce was fully vaccinated, and another 10 percent had their first shot. He said all CIA officers serving abroad “have the vaccine directly available to them.”

Mr. Wray was unable to give an estimate of how many of his agents had been shot, saying vaccination rates varied in field offices in different states. Ms Haines said 86 percent of her workforce had had at least one shot, with a “reasonable percentage” fully vaccinated. General Nakasone also had no estimate, but said a vaccination center had been set up in Fort Meade, Md., Where the National Security Agency’s headquarters are.

Lawmakers have also pressured intelligence agencies to help investigate the problem of domestic extremism. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat in Virginia and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, linked the rise of domestic extremism to the same trends that promote misinformation produced by Russia and others. And he said he wanted intelligence chiefs to explain how they could help give better warnings about potential violence like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Social media has helped disinformation from domestic extremist groups spread faster and more effectively than ever before – much like Russia and other nations have used it to spread lies, Wray said.

“Social media has in many ways become the key to extremism in domestic violence, just as it has been for malicious foreign influence,” he said. “There are all sorts of things out there on the Internet that pose as facts, which just isn’t.”

Wray continued the isolation caused by the pandemic had increased public susceptibility.

The hearing of the intelligence leaders was the first since the beginning of 2019, when they contradicted President Donald J. Trump’s lighter public statements, which got Mr. Trump to criticize his appointees publicly, asking them to “go back to school.” Sir. Trump’s last director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, chose not to release a threat assessment or witness to Congress last year.

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