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Senate panel holds hearing on global threats with heads of U.S. security agencies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right, U.S. intelligence agencies are in the business of gathering knowledge so the government can do its job. This week, their leaders are also being asked about what they do not know.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, the intelligence officials take questions from a House committee today. They sat before a Senate panel yesterday. They're coming off an impressive year, when they successfully forecast the invasion of Ukraine. But lawmakers now want answers to a different set of mysteries with fewer definite answers.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Covers the agencies. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do the lawmakers want to know?

MYRE: Well, lawmakers in both parties want to know the origins of COVID, and they agree China hasn't been forthcoming about the virus that began there. And this is part of broader friction in the relationship with China. Now, the intelligence community is considering two possibilities with COVID - one, a transmission from a wild animal to a human or, the second one, a leak from a scientific lab. Now, we should stress that most of the scientific community strongly believes it came from an animal. But some Republicans, like Senator Susan Collins of Maine, support the lab leak theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN COLLINS: I just don't understand why you continue to maintain, on behalf of the intelligence community, that these are two equally plausible explanations. They simply are not.

MYRE: Now, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, responded by saying that there's just not enough evidence to make a clear assessment at this point. And there is some divided opinion in the intelligence community about whether it was a lab leak or came from a natural transmission.

INSKEEP: Just not willing to say it is one answer, based on what she says she's hearing from the analysts. What's another mystery for which the best answer, according to the intelligence community, would seem to be, we don't know?

MYRE: Well, the intelligence community produced a lengthy report last week into the so-called Havana syndrome. These are the ailments that have been suffered by U.S. intelligence officials, diplomats and soldiers overseas. But the report didn't offer a clear explanation. It said there was no evidence that it was an attack by a foreign government, as some suspect. Perhaps it came from existing medical conditions. And this just didn't sit well with New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: It essentially says there's no external cause, which I think is really problematic. I find it unacceptable that we are not continuing diligent analysis of possible causes.

INSKEEP: Greg, bigger question here - why would it be that the U.S. was so effective at forecasting Russian troop movements last year and less effective with some of these other questions?

MYRE: I think it really goes to the origins of the intelligence agencies. They were set up to deal with questions of the Soviet Union or Russia and focus on military issues. That's what they're built to do. That's what they're comfortable with. That's where their expertise is. These issues we've just been talking about really are more very difficult scientific questions.

INSKEEP: Well, now they need to provide real-time information about the global rivalry with China. So what are they saying there?

MYRE: Well, they're really looking at President Xi Jinping and talking about the strident language he's been using, talking about the U.S. trying to contain or encircle China. But they also added that they think he wants to deal with domestic economic problems and therefore, beneath the rhetoric, may want just a stable relationship.

INSKEEP: OK, so a little bit of insight there. NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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