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Top U.S. security officials discuss Russia, China in assessment of worldwide threats

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Five top national security officials testified today before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an annual event that assesses worldwide threats. They hammered home two key points - Russia is the most immediate concern, and China poses the major long-term challenge.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to break it down for us. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK. So let's start with Russia. According to the testimony today, what should we be looking for next in Russia's war in Ukraine?

MYRE: Well, the intelligence chief said both sides - Russia and Ukraine - are both being worn down by this heavy fighting that's more than a year old. They could both face shortages of fresh troops and ammunition this year. Russia has been waging a new offensive in eastern Ukraine for the past month. Ukraine is widely expected to carry out its own offensive soon. But battlefield movements are often being measured by a hundred yards here, a few hundred yards there. Neither side appears poised for a big advance. Here's director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, speaking about Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

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AVRIL HAINES: In short, we do not foresee the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains. But Putin most likely calculates that time works in his favor.

MYRE: So the national security community is just not expecting a quick end to this war.

CHANG: OK. Well, a year ago, the U.S. Intelligence Community was widely praised for going public with information on Russia's plans to invade Ukraine. And I'm curious, what was the tone like this year?

MYRE: So it was a mostly cordial hearing, but there was some criticism that the international - sorry - the intelligence community hasn't solved some mysteries. Now, one example is a report that was produced just last week into the prolonged illnesses suffered by U.S. Intelligence officers and diplomats and soldiers overseas, the so-called Havana Syndrome. But the report didn't offer a clear explanation. It said that there was no evidence a foreign government was responsible and the ailments were most likely a result of existing medical conditions. And this just didn't sit well with New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: It essentially says is there's no external cause, which I think is really problematic. I find it unacceptable that we are not continuing diligent analysis of possible causes.

CHANG: OK. Let's turn to China, Greg, because the U.S. and China obviously have many points of friction at this moment. What concerns did the intelligence officials today lean into most?

MYRE: Well, they raised several. I'll mention two. One is President Xi Jinping. The other is technology. Now, President Xi is using increasingly strident language when he talks about the U.S., including remarks just this week where he said the U.S. is using, quote, "containment, encirclement and suppression" to limit China. He's blaming the U.S. for economic problems facing China and talks in very aggressive tones when he mentions the military. Of course, the big concern here is a possible Chinese move on Taiwan.

CHANG: Right. OK. And real quick, you mentioned technology. What was the message there?

MYRE: Well, the short answer is TikTok. The senators and national security officials pointed to the wildly popular social media company owned by China. They say that the Chinese government could get access to the data. And Chris Wray, the FBI director, said, quote, "this just screams out with national security concerns."

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.