Top 3 threats to the United States: the good and bad news

The annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community is out this week, a widely-anticipated report compiled by the nation’s intelligence agencies. Here is the good and bad news about the top three threats facing the United States, according to an unclassified version of the report.

1. Cyberwarfare

Susan Walsh/AP
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, where he delivered the US intelligence community's overview of global threats.

The bad news:

Even more than terrorism, the threat of cyberattack is the biggest peril currently facing the United States, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The rapid proliferation of digital technologies is happening “faster than our ability to understand the security implications and mitigate the potential risks,” Mr. Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee in presenting his report.

The most concerning part of that particular assessment, analysts note, is the often losing battle to stop cyberincursions into US networks.

These are lurking threats that are designed to remain undetected in cyber systems while simultaneously exporting vital economic and security data to enemies and criminal networks.

“Threats are more diverse, interconnected, and viral than at any time in history,” the threat assessment notes. “Destruction can be invisible, latent, and progressive.”

What makes combating cyberthreats even trickier is that those who are doing the attacking almost always have plausible deniability. Indeed, even more difficult than detecting an attack is figuring out where it came from, analysts note.

“The choices we and other actors make in coming years will shape cyberspace for decades to come, with potentially profound implications for US economic and national security,” Clapper warned lawmakers. “Our progress cannot stop.”

The good news:

Though former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” the nation’s intelligence agencies estimate that there is only a “remote chance of a major cyber attack against US critical infrastructure systems during the next two years that would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage,” according to the assessment.

That’s because the level of technical expertise required for such an attack “will be out of reach for most actors during this time frame.”

The most audacious cyberattackers of US networks, Russia and China, “are unlikely to launch such a devastating attack against the United States outside of a military conflict or crisis that they believe threatens their vital interests.”

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