China's nuclear arsenal poses the most serious "mortal threat" to the United States among nation states, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate on Thursday.
In candid testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Clapper said he considered China the most significant threat among nation states, with Russia posing the second-greatest threat. He later clarified the comments by saying he did not assess that China or Russia had the intention to launch an attack on the United States.
The testimony contrasts with statements by Obama administration officials who have sought to highlight the dangers of Iran and North Korea while paying less attention to China and Russia.
Mr. Clapper said he does not assess that North Korea and Iran pose greater strategic threats because they lack the forces that Russia and China have that could deliver a nuclear attack on the United States.
North Korea has tested at least twice a multistaged long-range missile capable of hitting the United States. On Tuesday, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told a conference in Washington that analysts estimate that Iran would be able to deliver a payload by missile to the U.S. East Coast by 2015.
Asked by Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, what country he viewed as the greatest adversary of the United States, Mr. Clapper said: "Probably China, if the question is pick one nation state."
He added, "We have a treaty, the New START treaty, with the Russians. I guess I would rank them a little lower because we don't have such a treaty with the Chinese."
China, according to successive Pentagon reports to Congress, is building up its strategic nuclear forces and has spurned offers from the administration to begin talks on nuclear arms, missile defenses, space and cyberweapons, as well as an international agreement to limit the production of fissile material.
On Libya, Mr. Clapper said besieged leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi likely will prevail in his regime's battle against rebel forces. He also said the North African state may break into three republics or, in a worst-case scenario, descend into a lawless state like Somalia.
That view appears at odds with the position of the White House. President Obama has said Col. Gadhafi should resign from power. This week, senior U.S. officials also suggested that a U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya would not prohibit the transfer of arms to the rebels.
Mr. Clapper's Libya remarks along with his assessment of the China threat earned him rebukes from some senators. In an interview with Fox News, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Mr. Clapper should step down or be fired for saying in a public forum that Col. Gadhafi would prevail over the rebels.
During the hearing, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, said he was "surprised" by Mr. Clapper's statement on China.
After Mr. Clapper clarified that he was speaking about capabilities and not intentions, Mr. Levin said, "I was just as surprised by that answer as your first answer. You're saying that China now has the intent to be a mortal adversary of the United States?"
Mr. Clapper responded, "Well the question is who, from my vantage, from among the nation states who would pose potentially the greatest [threat] if I had to pick one country, which I am loathe to do because I am more of the mind to consider their capabilities, both Russia and China potentially represent a broad threat to the United States. I don't think either country today has the intent to mortally attack us."
Defense officials have acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies have underestimated China's military capabilities. But the intelligence community is beginning to express more concerns about China's military buildup, which has been carried out largely in secret.
Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr., the Defense Intelligence Agency director, appeared with Mr. Clapper and agreed that China's power projection is growing.
"While remaining focused on Taiwan as a primary mission, China will, by 2020, lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish broader and regional global objectives," he said.
Gen. Burgess said China's military "continues to face deficiencies in interservice cooperation and actual experience in joint exercises and combat operations."
"China's leaders continue to stress asymmetric strategies to leverage China's advantage while exploiting potential opponents' perceived vulnerabilities," the general said.
One asymmetric strategy China is pursuing is the use of computer-based cyberprobes into U.S. classified computer networks. Mr. Clapper said the cyber-activity is a "formidable concern."
"The Chinese have made a substantial investment in this area, they have a very large organization devoted to it and they're pretty aggressive," Mr. Clapper said. "This is just another way in which they glean information about us and collect on us for technology purposes, so it's a very formidable concern."
In the hearing, Mr. Clapper stressed that Iran's supreme leader had not given the order to produce nuclear weapons in Iran.
The comments on Iran's nuclear program appeared to support a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003.
Last month, a CIA report to Congress dropped language from two previous reports that said Iran was keeping open its option to build nuclear weapons, as the National Intelligence Council recently notified Congress that it had altered the 2007 estimate. Officials declined to specify what was changed because the revision was classified.
Gen. Burgess said Iran is helping terrorists train and obtain weapons.
"At Iran's behest, Lebanese Hezbollah provides Iraqi insurgents with weapons and training to attack U.S. forces. Iran also provides weapons, explosives and munitions to insurgents in Afghanistan."
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