Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community focused on security threats posed by China, with little attention paid to Russia, during an annual oversight hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
FBI Director Christopher Wray and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declined to say whether their agencies are investigating allegations in a report by Bloomberg last week that China is imbedding U.S. products they manufacture for American consumers with microchips that collect data on American behavior. But Nielsen assured senators her department is concerned with such possibilities and is working to address the matter as part of a task force on the supply chain created by DHS’s National Risk Management Center.
“I’ve asked for a complete overhaul in how we look at the supply chain,” Nielsen told senators during the hearing, called Threats to the Homeland.
China has become a “major security threat in many ways,” said Nielsen, responding to a question from Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), adding she believes the Chinese are playing the “long game” with penetrations of U.S. security in various ways.
Several senators asked whether China is interfering in the upcoming midterm elections, as President Donald Trump has alleged. They also focused on what the United States can do about China allowing the importation of opioids, like China-produced fentanyl, into the U.S. and whether the U.S. could issue sanctions against China and other countries over the export of opioids.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) asked Nielsen if the President meant that U.S. intelligence has evidence that China is involved in an electronic effort to influence the elections. Nielsen told him there is “no indication” that China is interfering with electronic systems but there “is no question China has engaged in an unprecedented effort to influence American” elections by other means, referring to public advertisements and other media combatting Trump administration tariffs.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) asked Nielsen about China exporting fentanyl into the United States in packages disguised as another product. Nielsen said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is aware of that and has trained all of its K-9s at border control on detecting fentanyl (by smell). She said the importation of opioids is a major issue in ongoing policy discussions with China.
Several senators also asked the agency heads, which also included Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, what U.S. intelligence is doing to fight the growing threat of cyber security intrusions from both individuals and rogue states.
Nielsen said DHS is in the process of reorganizing its cyber defense capabilities. She praised last week’s Senate’s passage of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act, which allow DHS to reorganize its cyber security operations into a separate agency and streamline operations, and she urged the House to pass the bill when it votes next month.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked Nielsen about complaints she has fielded from Mexican officials about the flow of guns and money from the United States into Mexico and the lack of inspection by U.S. agents at border crossings going south. Nielsen said DHS is looking at the issue and will report back to her.
During her remarks, Nielsen said cyber attacks now exceed the risk of physical attacks. “Cyberspace is now the most active battlefield, and the attack surface extends into almost every American home,” she said.
“More than 30 nation-states now have cyber-attack capabilities, and sophisticated digital toolkits are spreading rapidly. DHS was founded fifteen years ago to prevent another 9/11, but I believe an attack of that magnitude today is now more likely to reach us online,” said Nielsen.
Wray warned of a new approach being taken by terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda using mobile technology to attract followers and plan and carry out attacks on American soil. “They are turning Twitter followers into terrorist foot soldiers. In so doing, they are promoting do-it-yourself terror by urging followers to adopt a “Bring Your Own Weapon” policy, and to conduct violent acts wherever and whenever is convenient,” he said.
“In many cases,” said Travers, “terrorist use of technology has outpaced law enforcement’s.”