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China likely a main focus as intelligence chiefs face grilling on Capitol Hill

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(WASHINGTON) — Intelligence chiefs from across the U.S. government face a grilling Wednesday from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with China likely a main focus.

The annual “Worldwide Threats” hearing features the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA director William Burns, FBI director Christopher Wray and Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone, among others.

In recent weeks, Intelligence Committee leaders have gotten briefed by officials on a multitude of issues, including the spy balloon the United States shot down off the coast of South Carolina and classified documents found at the homes and offices of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence.

The balloon was a People’s Republic of China asset, according to U.S. officials.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, ranking member on the committee, said in a letter sent to the Department of Defense on Feb. 8 that lawmakers needed more answers about how officials let the Chinese spy balloon travel over the U.S.

“There are a number of outstanding questions about what happened and why the Administration allowed an adversarial intelligence platform to move from Alaska to the Carolinas uninterrupted,” Sen. Roger Wicker and Rubio wrote.

Wicker is a ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We also lack a clear understanding of our senior national security leaders’ response to the Chinese surveillance balloon’s trajectory from first detection to January 28, when the Commander of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD Gen. Glen VanHerck notified his chain of command of the balloon, and until February 1, when President Biden finally ordered the Department to shoot down the balloon over water,” the lawmakers wrote.

China is also expected to take center stage on a variety of other fronts.

On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, unveiled a bill that would empower the president to ban TikTok and maybe other Chinese technology in the United States — a measure with White House and bipartisan congressional support.

Wray will also face questions on China, after he said in an interview with Fox News that the COVID-19 pandemic “most likely” originated from a potential lab incident in Wuhan, China, and faulted the Chinese government for not acting quickly enough to prevent spread of the disease.

An FBI spokesperson, when asked about the hearing, said Wray will face a number of topics, but declined to share anything specific about what the focus would be.

“The hearing will have multiple speakers and cover a variety of topics,” FBI spokesperson Christina Pullen told ABC News in an e-mail.

GOP senators on Monday sent a letter to Haines demanding they receive an intelligence briefing on the origins of COVID-19.

“We write to request that you immediately deliver to Congress each IC assessment used and relied upon by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for its consensus publications,” Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine and Roger Marshall of Kansas wrote.

“Congress should be able to review the independent evaluations without filters, ambiguity or interpretations of the intelligence. There is clear bipartisan support in Congress to make these assessments available immediately in full as evidenced by the unanimous March 1, 2023 Senate passage of the COVID-19 Origin Act to declassify information related to the origin of COVID-19,” they said.

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