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US spy chiefs at odds with Trump claims on N Korea and Iran

  • 29 Jan 2019

US intelligence chiefs dispute President Donald Trump's statements that North Korea can forego its nuclear weapons and Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons, the justification Trump gave for withdrawing from the 2015 multilateral treaty with Iran.

US spy leaders testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about "worldwide threats" on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, January 29, 2019. ( Reuters )

US intelligence chiefs on Tuesday contradicted President Donald Trump's statements that North Korea can be convinced to forego its nuclear weapons, and that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons.

In their annual report on security challenges to the country, the country's top spies also challenged Trump's claim that Tehran is actively seeking nuclear weapons, the justification Trump gave for withdrawing last year from a multilateral treaty on Iran.

China and Russia pose the biggest risks to the United States and are more aligned than they have been in decades, they told senators, in testimony that repeatedly contradicted Trump's statements on global threats.

While Beijing and Moscow seek to expand their global reach, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, some American allies are pulling away from Washington in reaction to changing US policies on security and trade.

"China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways – to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure," Coats said. 

He testified with the directors of the CIA, FBI and other top intelligence officials at the Senate Intelligence Committee's annual hearing on worldwide threats.

"Moscow's relationship with Beijing is closer than it's been in many decades," Coats told the panel.

North Korea unlikely to give up nukes

The intelligence chiefs' assessments broke with some past assertions by their boss, including on the threat posed by Russia to US elections and democratic institutions and North Korea's determination to denuclearise.

Coats said North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump has said the country no longer poses a threat.

Iran not developing nuclear weapons

The intelligence officials also said Iran was not developing nuclear weapons in violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, even though Tehran has threatened to reverse some commitments after Trump pulled out of the deal.

Senators expressed deep concern about current threats.

"Increased cooperation between Russia and China – for a generation that hasn't been the case – that could be a very big deal on the horizon in terms of the United States," said Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Daesh defeat

On Daesh, which Trump and his top officials have repeatedly claimed has been defeated by a US-led coalition, Coats said that while the US has defeated the terror group's territorial hold in Iraq and Syria "with a couple of little villages left," it will remain a threat for the foreseeable future.

Daesh still retains control of "thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria," estimated CIA Director Gina Haspel , who was testifying alongside Coats and other top intelligence officials.

Trump touted the terror group's defeat when announcing the withdrawal of US forces from Syria last month, but has since walked back the claim to address only the near-complete loss of territory it once controlled.

That has not resulted in Daesh conceding defeat, according to Coats, who said it "has returned to its guerrilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide."

Allies pull away

Coats also said some US allies are seeking more independence, responding to their perceptions of Washington's changing policies on security and trade, and "are becoming more open" to new partnerships.

"The post-World War Two international system is coming under increasing strain amid continuing cyber and WMD proliferation threats, competition in space and regional conflicts," Coats said, using the acronym for weapons of mass destruction.

The officials painted a multifaceted picture of the threat posed by China, as they were questioned repeatedly by senators about the No 2 world economy's business practices as well as its growing international influence.

"The Chinese counter-intelligence threat is more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of," FBI Director Christopher Wray said.

Senator Richard Burr, the committee's Republican chairman, said the government must work with private companies to foster innovation, while balancing concern about security risks. 

False news

Many lawmakers have blasted technology companies over the past two years for doing too little to fight the spread of false news reports and other misinformation.

Coats said intelligence officials have been traveling around the United States and meeting with corporate executives to discuss espionage threats from China.

Tuesday's testimony came just a day after the US announced criminal charges against China's Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, escalating a fight with the world's biggest telecommunications equipment maker and coming days before trade talks between Washington and Beijing.

Coats also said US adversaries likely are already looking to interfere in the 2020 US election, refining their capabilities and adding new tactics.

He said Russia's social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities and criticising politicians perceived to be anti-Russia.

Senator Mark Warner, the panel's top Democrat, said he was particularly concerned about Russia's use of social media "to amplify divisions in our society and to influence our democratic processes" and the threat from China in the technology arena.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is one of several congressional panels, along with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, that have been investigating whether there were any connections between Trump's 2016 and Russian efforts to influence the election.

Russia meddling 

Coats declined to respond when Democratic Senator Ron Wyden asked whether Trump's not releasing records of his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin put US intelligence agencies at a disadvantage.

"To me from an intelligence perspective, it's just Intel 101 that it would help our country to know what Vladimir Putin discussed with Donald Trump," Wyden said.

Trump denies colluding with Russia, and Russia denies attempting to influence US elections.

The intelligence officials were due to continue testifying to the committee at a classified hearing later on Tuesday. 

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