The Annual Threat Assessment (ATA) report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) illustrates the priorities and risk levels of the most pressing national security matters for the intelligence community (IC).
Year after year, as events play out globally, assessments and priorities documented within the ATA provide a snapshot of the current dynamics at play. The unclassified report plays a critical role in shaping policy that the federal government will undertake in the coming year and signal more extensive policy changes in the following years.
In assessing the present iteration of the ATA from its predecessor, it is apparent how the two most significant global events in recent memory — the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine — have realized concrete impacts on America's security.
Here are some of the biggest priorities and concerns highlighted in the ATA that organizations and teams must monitor in the coming year.
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As in the previous two reports, China continues to be the IC's highest priority nation. Security concerns within the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait are leading to a change in rhetoric from the IC. Concerns over a Chinese takeover of Taiwan are at an all-time high, despite the belief that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not mobilize its forces on the island for many more years.
The increasing posturing on this internationally significant region will continue as part of a pivot in the CCP's international strategy to dominate the Asia-Pacific region, and the CCP has adjusted its international strategy to further divide the world between loyalties to the U.S. and western-minded states and the authoritarian-oriented Beijing. As a result, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will continue apace with Beijing pivoting to prioritize funding clean energy and electric vehicle infrastructure projects. BRI directly aims to counter western aid programs to align developing nations with the CCP, often with precious natural resources.
The need for resources globally was significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighted incredible shortfalls in the global supply chain system that presented downstream concerns for U.S. security policy.
China is home to massive centers of the global supply chain's critical semiconductors, batteries, and solar panel manufacturing sectors. The country seeks to further bolster its position by expanding its physical and financial presence globally to exert greater influence on global supply chains. Additional control over critical natural resources would place the United States and the west at a significant disadvantage.
Given that the U.S. economy has largely transitioned to one that is service-based, onshoring and developing additional manufacturing domestically and throughout allied nations will require significant legislative and executive action to combat an increasingly aggressive China.
Pandemic preparedness is another major security concern. The IC had greatly reduced the attention it paid to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the new report specifically highlights downstream security risks associated with the pandemic’s fallout. While the IC believes that the threat of COVID-19 has largely subsided, it is apparent that an emergence of a new novel virus would have a similarly devastating impact on the security of the U.S.
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China is central to manufacturing the world's pharmaceutical supplies in addition to personal protective equipment (PPE). Both stockpiles have significantly depleted from the pre-pandemic era. This shortage and limited capability to produce critical inventory, combined with the intersection of domestic distrust of health authorities, present grave security concerns if another global health crisis arises.
The previous Congress moved toward addressing many of these concerns with the passage of the CHIPS Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act. Given the increased risk and lag time in development, additional funding for domestic manufacturing of critical supplies is again up for debate in Congress.
In this new report, the ODNI greatly reduced the attention it paid to the origin of COVID-19. In 2022, the ATA noted that four IC elements assessed with low confidence that COVID-19 began as a result of natural exposure to an animal, while one IC element assessed with moderate confidence that the pandemic was likely caused by an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and three IC elements had no conclusion. The 2023 ATA reduced the origin assessment to stating that all agencies subscribe to the belief that either the animal exposure or lab leak theories are conceivable. The House Oversight Committee, however, has signaled that it intends to make the origins of COVID-19 its top priority in this Congress.
Both China and Russia seek to capitalize on the fears, concerns, and legitimate deficiencies related to biosecurity by further exploring biological weapons that would exploit the deficiencies in the U.S. and global health security. After the COVID-19 pandemic, questions surrounding gain-of-function research will be explored in congressional hearings and members will be forced to reckon with developments in biological weapons that could be used to undermine U.S. security interests at home and abroad. Constituents are demanding answers not only on the COVID-19 origins but also on how citizens will be protected from the next pandemic. It will be on Congress to direct the national security organizations to implement and update contingency plans, as well as to fund these operations.
The 2022 ATA was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In that volume, the ODNI assessed that Russia would seek to "insert itself into crises when… the anticipated costs of action are low, or it sees an opportunity to capitalize on a power vacuum." The 2023 ATA has revised this language to now include "an existential threat in its neighborhood that could destabilize Putin's rule and endanger Russian national security."
As a result of the war in Ukraine, the IC has assessed that Russia will maintain its global footprint but in a reduced capacity due to sanctions and a decreased number of international partnerships. The IC concludes that Beijing has not yet ruled out lethal aid to Russia. This would be a departure from the stance the CCP first took at the United Nations early last year, where the nation did not take a stance in a vote that the General Assembly had taken on the condemnation of Russia. Such a relationship would significantly expand the scope of sanctions which have been limited to Russia and Belarus since the onset of the invasion.
The scope of sanctions that the Biden administration and the remainder of the world would take is unknown. Governments worldwide determined it was a fair trade to sacrifice global energy prices in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression. Still, given the world's certain reliance on China, it has yet to be determined how severe and multilateral a sanctions front would be against Beijing.
The IC has determined that despite Russia's invasion and subsequent dilution on the world stage, Moscow will remain a critical adversary as it continues to develop its space, cyber, and weapons of mass destruction technologies, albeit at a reduced rate.
With the March 14 downing of the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the congressional and executive level challenges have been heightened. The U.S. response will shape the remainder of the war effort.
The MQ-9 flying over the Black Sea in international airspace was in support of the Ukrainian war effort. The U.S. provides intelligence to the Ukrainian front lines to mitigate Russian offensives. With existing contention over current levels of U.S. involvement in the Ukrainian defensive efforts, Congress is now confronted with the reality that the Russians sought to directly undermine U.S. efforts by interfering directly with U.S.-operated military equipment.
Technology & Digital Authoritarianism
Additionally, the IC noted that the rapid development in technology — particularly as it relates to artificial intelligence and biotechnology — is accelerating faster than can be properly regulated. New technological developments, in addition to the discovery of novel uses of commercially available technologies that can be exploited by both state and non-state actors, present "asymmetric" threats to the U.S.
One asymmetric threat that the IC highlighted was the use of digital authoritarianism. The use of communication technologies manufactured by international companies in nations with authoritarian regimes can be leveraged as spyware and surveillance technologies, as well as to artificially manipulate the information presented to users. This was a concern many years back with the Chinese company Huawei, which manufactured telecommunication devices. The U.S. and other western governments banned the sale of Huawei devices in 2019 as they were deemed to be a state actor and national security risk.
Today, similar conversations are happening as it relates to China-based commercial enterprise ByteDance’s TikTok. The 118th Congress has taken up legislation aimed at banning TikTok outright within the United States, with President Biden signaling support. Such a move would be the most visible action taken against a Chinese company to date, given the attention it has from U.S. citizens. Such a ban was previously considered within the Trump administration but was blocked in court, and with assurances from ByteDance that U.S. consumer data is stored domestically and can’t be accessed by the CCP.
Most recently on this front, the Biden administration has informed ByteDance that its U.S. arm must divest from the Chinese parent company entirely or face an outright ban. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has engaged in negotiations with the U.S. arm of TikTok to address national security concerns related to data privacy and digital authoritarianism. The objective of CFIUS is to isolate U.S. user data away from Chinese-based commercial enterprises.
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The threats that have surfaced from the onslaught of recent global developments present significant challenges for lawmakers and regulators. The speed at which they are presenting directly confronts our current methods of governance. Lawmakers will be pushed by their constituencies to make reforms, not only when it comes to specific security concerns, but also to processes.
The most recent large-scale reform was in 2018, with the establishment of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to mend the deficit of the nation's cybersecurity and infrastructure apparatuses. Whether additional reform will come in the form of a new agency or a bill has yet to be determined.
To monitor these processes, organizations will need to have a system in place that focuses on what is truly important to their business. FiscalNote’s global policy analysis and reporting surfaces the insights that matter most to your organization. Our policy experts act as a force multiplier to identify opportunities, risks, and trends across the globe, and back them up with in-depth analysis.
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