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The Senate Intelligence Committee holds a hearing Thursday, March 10, 2022, on worldwide threats as Russia continues to attack Ukraine, at the Capitol in Washington. From left are FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and CIA Director William Burns.

The Senate Intelligence Committee holds a hearing Thursday, March 10, 2022, on worldwide threats as Russia continues to attack Ukraine, at the Capitol in Washington. From left are FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and CIA Director William Burns. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials on Thursday dispelled Russian propaganda and warned of looming national security threats as senators urged for more support for Ukraine’s battle against Russian forces.

Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, dismissed Russian claims Ukraine was developing biological and nuclear weapons in labs affiliated with the U.S., calling the accusations a “classic” move by Russia to peddle disinformation.

In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Haines described her growing concern for Russia’s perpetual war on information, as well as China’s active role in disseminating disinformation about the war in Ukraine.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he asked Haines to publicly address Russian propaganda to deny the Kremlin the opportunity to create a pretext for a biowarfare attack against Ukraine.

“I think we’ve learned from all this that the best way to combat disinformation is transparency,” he said.

Senators praised the unprecedented flow of declassified intelligence leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last month, crediting the disclosures for preventing Russian false-flag operations. CIA Director William Burns told the committee that publicized intelligence also helped thwart Russia’s plans for a quick capture of its neighboring country.

“In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians. In this case, I think we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression, built on a body of lies and false narratives,” Burns said. “This is one information war I think Putin is losing.”

Competition in the information and technology is one of the main national security challenges facing the U.S., Haines said. China’s investment in cyber technology and espionage threatens intellectual property while Russia’s well-known cyberattacks continue to wreak havoc around the world, she said.

U.S. intelligence predicted vast cyberattacks on Ukraine prior to a ground invasion but those forecasts have proved wrong, National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone said. Ukraine has experienced three or four cyberattacks so far, an unexpectedly low number that Nakasone attributed to either a strategic move by Russia or successful U.S. efforts to shore up Ukrainian cyber defenses.

“A tremendous amount of work was done prior to the actual invasion that was done by my agency, by cyber command, by interagency, by a series of private-sector partners that hardened the infrastructure of Ukraine,” he said. “We’re sharing information and sharing our expertise with our partners.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the committee, pressed the U.S. intelligence officials to continue to work with allies to advance space and cyber technology, and fortify networks against Russian and Chinese penetration. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified Thursday that the agency has seen a 1,300% increase in economic espionage investigations tied to the Chinese government in the past decade.

“I truly believe that whoever wins the technology race, in the 21st century, will lead to economic and other levels of dominance,” Warner said. “I think that ability to compete against China will require, frankly, not only the United States, but working with our allies around the world.”

The budding relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping could morph into a powerful alliance that further endangers the U.S. and its partners in NATO, warned Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine.

“It seems if we’re talking about worldwide threats, that’s one of them,” he said.

Haines said she anticipates the Russia-China partnership will strengthen in the military, economic and political sectors but the two nations becoming full allies is years away.

“The announcements that were made during the Olympics are an indication of how close they're becoming, but at the same time, we do see it as not yet at the point where we are with allies — they have not achieved that kind of level of cooperation,” she said, referring to a 5,000-word joint statement by Russia and China announcing their friendship. “And we anticipate it is unlikely in the next five years that they will.”

Burns said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has likely unsettled Beijing officials who fear reputational and economic damage from the increasingly bloody war.

Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., challenged Haines and other intelligence officials on Thursday to explain why the U.S. is not doing more to help Ukraine, pointing to the White House’s refusal this week to facilitate the transfer of aircraft to Ukraine from Poland.

Intelligence analysts determined that providing the embattled country with Soviet-era planes from a NATO ally could escalate into a NATO conflict with Russia or a U.S. war with Russia, Haines said. The U.S. continues to send Ukraine anti-tank missiles, anti-tank rocket systems, grenade launchers and ammunition.

Cotton questioned the distinction between supplying weaponry and planes while Sasse called on the intelligence community to work out a solution.

“It’s not impossible to figure out a way to solve the problem if we wanted to solve the problem. Women and children are being bombed,” Sasse said. “Nobody on this committee is calling for U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine but there's more we can do and we should be going faster.”

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.
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