Washington D.C. — Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) questioned Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William J. Burns at the committee’s open hearing on Worldwide Threats.
The Honorable Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence
Rubio: Thank you all for being here. I'll direct this to you, Director Haines, but anybody who wants to answer it can do so.
I think we've learned from all this, the best way to combat disinformation is through transparency. So I want to walk through some component pieces of a particular topic involving labs and Ukraine and then allow you to expand or anyone to expand that could provide greater insight.
As you all were aware, Russia has been laying out this argument, for a number of months now, about how there are these labs in Ukraine that are developing chemical and biological weapons, that the U.S. is involved, that they've discovered it. They've been making that argument for a period of time, and it's the argument they usually make before they use that kind of stuff themselves against someone.
So let me just start with the question, the component pieces, and then allow you to expand more on the important part of it. There is a difference between a biological research facility and a biological weapons research facility, correct?
Rubio: Ok. Does Ukraine have any biological weapons research facilities?
Haines: No. Let me be clear, we do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing either biological weapons or nuclear weapons, which have been some of the propaganda that Russia is putting out.
Rubio: Ok, so they do have biological research facilities. What is our government's role in their biological research programs?
Haines: So as I understand it, Ukraine operates about a little over a dozen biolabs, and what they are involved in is Ukraine's biodefense and their public health response, and that's essentially what they're intended to do. And I think that the U.S. government provides assistance, or at least has in the past provided assistance, really in the context of biosafety, which is something that we've done globally with a variety of different countries. I would defer [on] the details of that assistance to the agencies.
Rubio: I guess that's the important component. How do we define biosafety or biodefense? Is it the ability to have antidotes or responses if someone were to use an agent against you, if you were having an outbreak? What exactly is that?
Haines: I will quickly get out of my area of expertise, but I'll give you a generic answer that I understand. For biodefense, you can think about things like medical [assets:] for example, things that will help you to address a pandemic that is an outbreak in your country, things along those lines. Things that prevent spreading of pandemics and other health issues. Things along those lines. The kinds of biosafety pieces that [the U.S.] would be providing assistance for are things like making sure that as you're producing medical countermeasures, you're taking appropriate precautions. That you're letting the medical community internationally know, notifying [it] when appropriate. So that's the kind of assistance [the U.S. has provided].
But again, I want to be absolutely clear that we do not believe that Ukraine is pursuing biological or nuclear weapons, that we've seen no evidence of that. And frankly, this influence campaign is completely consistent with longstanding Russian efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring bioweapons work in the former Soviet Union. So this is a classic move by the Russians.
Rubio: So I think the one thing that's piqued a lot of people's interest and I hope we can address is [what Under Secretary] Nuland said a couple of days ago in response to my question in another hearing. This is a quote: “The U.S. government is concerned about preventing any of these research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.”
People will hear that and say, “Well, that means that there must be something in these labs that’s very dangerous; they possess pathogens or something….” Look, we're all coming off the trauma of COVID-19, the possibility that there might have been an accident or a leak out of a lab there that we still don't know the answer to. It's in that context that people read that statement or hear it and say, “It sounds to me like they have labs, these labs are working on dangerous things….”
How should people assess [Under Secretary Nuland’s] statement? Why are we so concerned? I know maybe I'm asking you some questions that regard medicine and biology and research and so forth. But it's really important for this effort to understand what exactly is in these labs that we're so worried about [the Russians] getting their hands on.
Haines: I think medical facilities — that I’ve been in as a child, done research in high school and college — all have equipment or pathogens or other things that you have to have restrictions around because you want to make sure that they're being treated and handled appropriately. And I think that's the kind of thing that Victoria Nuland was describing and thinking about in the context of that.
We have to be concerned in the same way that we have to be concerned about the nuclear power plant or other facilities — that when they're seized, and if they're seized, that there may be damage done or theft. [That the Russians might in] fact, misuse some of the material that's there, that's not intended for weapons purposes, but nevertheless can be used in dangerous ways or that can create challenges for the local populations.
Rubio: All right, thanks.
The Honorable William J. Burns, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Rubio: [Under] Secretary Nuland said there's these [bioresearch] facilities [in Ukraine] and there's something in those facilities. It's dangerous because we're afraid the Russians will get a hold of it.
Now I understand that there's a difference between a bioweapons facility and one that's doing research. A bioresearch facility is a totally different thing than a bioweapons facility, because you could have samples of a deadly or serious pathogen, but that doesn't mean you could weaponize it or that you're working on weaponizing it. But people ask themselves if there [are] these facilities there…?
There's a lot at play here. This is not on you, but a long time ago, this should have been acknowledged, [that] there are all these labs. A lot of these fact checkers just said, don't even mention labs, because they don't even exist. They do. They exist all over the world. There's labs like that right here.
So what I think got some people fired up is when she said we're worried that the Russians will get a hold of these facilities. Because that implies that there's something in those [that is] dangerous. I don't know if you could shed some light on how there can be things in the lab that are dangerous, but they may not be weapons labs?
Burns: The danger here, it seems to me, is the capacity the Russians have developed and that they've used in the past, and their interest in trying to create false narratives here as well.
You have to be careful about any of those substances you've talked about, which you see in public health or research systems around the world for civilian purposes. While you have to be careful about that, that is in no way akin to the kind of threats that would be posed by weapons research and development or weapons facilities.
Rubio: I just think that [Under Secretary Nuland’s] answer is what piqued a lot of people's [attention]. And look, [the Russians are] latching onto it. That's my point. I think there's been such a good job done at defeating them in the information space, but this is one [point] where they seem to have latched on.
I don't think anyone believes per se that if there's some very serious attack or even a fake one, that [the Russians are] going to convince the American public that the Ukrainians are behind it. But it's the confusion around it that I worry about, debilitating the debate and allowing [the Russians] to deflect [accusations].
I do want to ask you [something. And I want to ask] you in particular, Director Burns, because you have been involved with Russia issues for a very long time, so I think as much as anyone involved today in this issue, you've had an opportunity to watch Vladimir Putin through the years.
This whole thing about … negotiations or parent negotiations … in Turkey with the foreign ministers — it's my view that [Putin] uses negotiations as just another tool in his toolbox. What is your view of why he continues to agree to these talks and put these talks forward, if we know they're not resulting in anything and, in fact, he's violating whatever they even nominally agree to?
Burns: Senator, yours is a fair assumption, that [negotiations] sometimes are just used tactically. I think the core issue here is that President Putin does not have a sustainable endgame in Ukraine right now. So the question is, is he simply going to continue to double down and grind down the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian population? Or at some point does he recognize that reality, that he doesn't have a sustainable endgame and look for ways to end the bloodshed, to cut his losses and reaffirm the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine?
Now, given Putin's track record, given the fact that he's someone who hates to act out of what he believes to be weakness, that he hates to concede or admit mistakes, that's probably a long shot. But you know, that's our hope, at least. That at some point he recognizes [Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity]. Because absent that, off ramps become just rhetoric.