President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned a significant cyber attack on the United States could lead to "a real shooting war" with a major power, comments that highlight what Washington sees as growing threats posed by Russia and China.
"I think it's more than likely we're going to end up, if we end up in a war – a real shooting war with a major power – it's going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence and it's increasing exponentially, the capabilities," Biden said during a half-hour speech.
Cybersecurity has risen to the top of the agenda for the Biden administration after a series of high-profile attacks on entities such as network management company SolarWinds, the Colonial Pipeline company, meat processing company JBS, and software firm Kaseya hurt the U.S. far beyond just the companies hacked. Some of the attacks affected fuel and food supplies in parts of the United States.
The president in his remarks to about 120 Office of Director of National Intelligence employees and senior leadership officials sought to make clear he understood the complexity and critical nature of their work. The agency oversees the 17 other U.S. intelligence organizations.
"You have my full confidence," he said. "I know there's no such thing as 100% certainty in the intelligence world. Occasionally that happens. Rarely, rarely, rarely."
Biden told the audience that his administration would be "getting us back to the basics."
"I'll never politicize the work you do. You have my word on that," he said. "It's too important for our country."
Biden toured the National Counterterrorism Center Watch Floor, where analysts work to collect information and intelligence from various sources to ascertain potential threats. He was accompanied on the tour by Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, and Christy Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
The president has already called on Haines with several politically sensitive requests. Perhaps the most prominent is an enhanced review of the origins of COVID-19 as concerns increase among scientists that the novel coronavirus could have originated in a Chinese lab. Biden set a 90-day timeframe and pledged to make the results of the review public.
Haines and CIA Director Bill Burns are also investigating a growing number of reported injuries and illnesses possibly linked to directed energy attacks in what is known as the "Havana syndrome." The CIA recently appointed a new director of its task force investigating Havana syndrome cases, an undercover official who participated in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And intelligence agencies are having to adapt to the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, with growing concerns that the Taliban may topple the U.S.-backed central government.
Haines and Burns have also said that their review of COVID-19 origins might be inconclusive, probably disappointing lawmakers and observers who have pushed for more aggressive action against China.
Former officials said Biden's choice of visiting the national intelligence director before the CIA was significant because it makes clear he wants Haines to be considered his principal intelligence adviser. When her office was created in 2005 to better coordinate intelligence sharing following the 9/11 attacks, it subsumed a leadership role once held by the CIA director. Since then, agencies and leaders have periodically fought for preeminence, causing concerns that some agencies' views are more strongly heard than others.
"I think we've had a couple of presidents in a row where the supremacy of the DNI was put in some question either through the selection of people they chose in the job or how they engaged with the community," said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior official at both the CIA and the intelligence office who now leads the Hayden Center at George Mason University.
Pfeiffer said he strongly supported Biden's visit and also hoped the president would eventually visit the memorial wall where Trump spoke in January 2017.
Information from both Reuters and The Associated Press was used to compile this report.
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