Biden addresses intelligence community in first visit as president

Washington — President Biden urged the U.S. intelligence community on Tuesday to act with “vigilance” and speed to confront new and evolving security challenges ranging from climate change to cyber conflict to a more militarily assertive China.

In public remarks delivered at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in Virginia, his first visit since taking office, Mr. Biden warned that the rapid pace and immense scale of changes in technology, global alliances and climate would place an “enormous burden” on the men and women of the intelligence community to keep the U.S. competitive on the world stage.

“Threats that are more geographically dispersed than they were 20 years ago — they’re going to require vigilance. And we have to continue efforts to better understand some of the hardest, the most important intelligence targets we face as a nation,” Mr. Biden said.

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President Biden addresses the intelligence community workforce and its leadership while on a tour at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in McLean, Virginia, on July 27, 2021. SAUL LOEB / AFP via Getty Images

“But we also need to make sure we position ourselves to stay ahead of the security challenges that will stretch the [intelligence community] in new ways it has never been stretched before,” he added.

The president cited looming challenges from China and Russia — which he described as “potentially mortal competitors, down the road” — and said he thought significant disruptions in the cyber domain could risk leading to armed conflict.

“I can’t guarantee this, and you’re as informed as I am, but I think it’s more likely, we’re going to end up, we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power — it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach, “Mr. Biden said.

He also alluded to new election and misinformation threats emanating from Russia, whose efforts to target the 2022 election were described, he said, in the day’s presidential daily brief.  

“In today’s PDB you all prepared for me, look what Russia is doing already about the 2022 elections and misinformation. It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” Biden said.

He described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a leader with dwindling resources and options, but warned as a result he posed a more serious threat.

“When I was with Mr. Putin, who has a real problem – he is sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else,” Mr. Biden said. “He knows he’s in real trouble, which makes him even more dangerous in my view.”

Mr. Biden also said President Xi Jinping of China was “deadly earnest” about building the most powerful military and largest economy in the world. In what appeared to be a slip of classified information, he began to mention a recent revelation about “hypersonics” before moving on.

Still, he said cooperation with Russia and China would be necessary, especially in the face of “shared” dangers like climate change, which he said was already accelerating instability in the US and worldwide. 

The president said several times that political considerations should not interfere with the intelligence community’s efforts, and vowed he would not use any agencies’ findings for partisan purposes.

“It is so vital that you are and should be totally free of any political pressure or partisan interference,” he said. “I’ll never politicize the work you do. You have my word on that.”

Mr. Biden also expressed gratitude for what he acknowledged was a largely unknown sacrifice on the part of the intelligence community’s workforce and said the country was “safer” and “stronger” because of it.

While Mr. Biden has insisted on receiving intelligence free of politics, he has nonetheless charged the community with what have become high-profile and politically charged pursuits.  

In May, Mr. Biden asked agencies to ” redouble ” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, setting a deadline of 90 days for them to “collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion.” 

The intelligence community has been, for well over a year, weighing two possible scenarios – human contact with an infected animal or a lab accident. Administration and intelligence officials have said two intelligence agencies lean toward one scenario, and one toward the other. 

Both Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns have already said publicly it was possible the intelligence community would never arrive at a definitive answer.

Intelligence agencies are also focused on determining the cause of a mysterious illness known colloquially as “Havana Syndrome,” which has sickened at least 100 intelligence officers and family members since 2016. A total of 200 American officers, including diplomats and military personnel, are thought to have been affected, and lawmakers of both parties have requested more answers on the incidents’ origin.  

While intelligence officials have said they have reached no conclusion about what causes the illness – including whether it might be the work of a foreign actor — one prevalent theory is that the cases are the result of attempted intelligence collection by Russian government operatives.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Biden said his administration was taking the health incidents “very seriously.”  

The community is also grappling with what amounts to a has said in its mandate and principal areas of focus, which have in recent years edged away from counterterrorism and toward broader, more amorphous challenges, including climate change, disease outbreaks and geopolitical instability. 

Leaders have also consistently said the paramount challenge for US national security will be competition with Beijing, which Burns has said the CIA would confront with “intensified focus and energy.”