Washington, D.C. – Today at the annual worldwide threats open hearing, U.S. Senator Susan Collins questioned the top leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies about the long-term national security repercussions of the Biden Administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, which resulted in U.S. military hardware falling into the hands of terrorists. Senator Collins also probed the intelligence community’s conflicting conclusions regarding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Directing a question to Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, Senator Collins listed the billions of dollars’ worth of military assets were left behind in Afghanistan, including ammunition, communications equipment, and at least 16,000 pairs of night vision goggles, 167 aircraft, and 2,000 vehicles.
“My concern is that all of these assets could be useful in launching a terrorist attack on the United States or on one of our allies,” said Senator Collins. “Given the continued chaos in Afghanistan and presence of terrorist groups that want to harm the United States—[groups] that have made no secret about harming us or our allies—what is the intelligence community's assessment on the counterterrorism threat to the United States' homeland and our allies--particularly one launched from Afghanistan?”
“From our perspective at the Defense Intelligence Agency, certainly our reach and grasp into that nation since the fall of the government has eroded over time, but we still have some access,” responded General Berrier. “And I would say, based on what we know right now from the threat of al Qaeda, they're trying to survive, basically without a real plan to at least or intend to attack the West anytime soon. And I would say that ISIS-K poses a bit of a larger threat, but they are under attack from the Taliban regime right now. And it's a matter of time before they may have the ability and intent to actually attack the West at this point.”
“That dovetails very closely with the Defense Intelligence Agency,” added National Security Agency Director General Paul Kakasone. “We see the same challenges across the IC with some of our collection. But we do see a challenge, ISIS-K, in Afghanistan right now as they battle the Taliban.”
Senator Collins also questioned Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on the origins of COVID.
“We know that 6.5 million people have died, that trillions of dollars have been lost in economic activity,” said Senator Collins. “We also know that had we known early on the origin of COVID, we might have well have been able to change the trajectory and been better prepared for future pandemics. We've heard the FBI Director today say that the most likely explanation is a laboratory incident. We know that the Wuhan whistleblower who first raised alarms was silenced by the Chinese government and later died of COVID. We know, as your statement says, that Beijing continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blames other countries. Those are not the actions of an innocent party. We know that the Department of Energy has changed its assessment to say that the most likely cause is a laboratory incident. I just don't understand why you continue to maintain on behalf of the intelligence community that [a natural cause and a lab leak] are two equally plausible explanations. They simply are not.”
Director Haines responded: “I share your frustration with the fact that China hasn't been more cooperative on this issue to provide intelligence that would be of use to the scientists and others who work on these questions. There are four elements plus our National Intelligence Council that assess with low confidence that the infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an infected animal. So, the IC remains divided on this issue. We have the FBI, as you noted, that sees it as more likely that it's a lab leak and has done that with moderate confidence. And the Department of Energy has changed its views slightly with low confidence. It says that a lab leak is most likely, but they do so for different reasons than the FBI does. And their assessments are not identical.”
This week, Senator Collins joined seven of her colleagues in sending a letter requiring that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) submit to Congress the Intelligence Community’s (IC) detailed COVID-19 origins individual agency assessments. The Senators also requested a detailed briefing from the ODNI regarding how it valued each IC member’s evaluation of COVID origins. The letter comes on the heels of recent reporting of the U.S. Department of Energy’s assessment that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory, a stance also shared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.