Intel chiefs find bright spots amid serious risks to US security

Top US intelligence chiefs discussed top state threats in testimony before lawmakers Tuesday. But it wasn’t all bad.

Alex Brandon/AP
From left, FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and CIA Director John Brennan participate in a Senate hearing on worldwide threats, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Top US intelligence chiefs this week offered up to Congress their typically bracing – one lawmaker called it “predictably cheery” – rundown of the greatest dangers facing the country.

That the Pentagon budget rollout happened on the same day is no mistake. Reminders that it can be a scary world tend to come in handy when the US military is seeking funds in a belt-tightening time.

Indeed, on Tuesday the intelligence chiefs discussed serious risks for the nation, including what they say are the top state threats, from Russia and China. But they also looked at some promising global developments – even putting Iran in this category, at least marginally.

In the Worldwide Threat Assessment, as the report to Congress is known, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated that violent extremists are “operationally active” in some 40 countries. Also, seven nations are in the midst of a “collapse of central government authority,” and another 59 have “a significant risk of instability through 2016.”

As a result, the record level of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe – more than 1 million – “is likely to grow further,” the intelligence chiefs reasoned, and another 60 million people are considered displaced globally.

“Extreme weather, climate change, environmental degradation, rising demand for food and water, poor policy decisions, and inadequate infrastructure will magnify this instability,” Mr. Clapper said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Another challenge he identified: the downside to promising technological developments. The so-called Internet of Things (IoT), or smart devices incorporated into the electric grid, include everything from household appliances to autonomous vehicles, and they “are improving efficiency, energy conservation, and convenience,” Clapper acknowledged.

Yet in the future, “many of these new systems can threaten data privacy,” he noted. “Intelligence services might use the IoT for identification, surveillance, monitoring, local tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”

Cyberattacks emanating from China are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, Clapper said.

"China continues to have success in cyber espionage against the US government, our allies, and US companies," he added. "Beijing also selectively uses cyberattacks against targets it believes threaten Chinese domestic stability or regime legitimacy."

Still, in the midst of the gloom, the intelligence chiefs found brighter spots.

The Iranians are complying with the nuclear agreement implemented in mid-January, Clapper said. “The international community is well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities,” he said.

Clapper noted that it’s an issue he takes personally. “My fingerprints are on the infamous weapons-of-mass-destruction National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002,” he reminded lawmakers, referring to the erroneous intelligence that drove America to war against Iraq. “So I think we approach this with confidence, but also with institutional humility.”

North Korea, meanwhile, has been continuing to develop its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program – and historically there has been cooperation between North Korea and Iran on this front, said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire. “Can we expect that North Korea will sell or share technology with Tehran that could expedite Iran’s development of ICBM missiles?” she asked.

This does not appear to be the case, Clapper said. “There has not been a great deal of interchange” between Iran and North Korea on the subject of nuclear missile capabilities. “We’ve been reasonably successful in detecting this,” he added.

As for countering the Islamic State, Arab countries – which US commanders have long said are key to defeating the terrorist group – are beginning to join the fight. It turns out the United Arab Emirates has a “very, very capable” Army, Clapper told lawmakers.

“The performance of their counterterrorist forces in Yemen has been quite impressive,” and they may be able to take these skills to help fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. But Syria would be a bit more challenging for them, said Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

At the same time, on the political front, the current Shiite prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, is pushing for a more inclusive government that would reach out to disenfranchised and disillusioned Sunnis. “I think the Sunnis believe that they have a real prospect, either for an involvement with the Iraqi government or some other confederation construct where their views and interests are represented,” Lieutenant General Stewart said. “I think they’ll likely turn against ISIL – I don’t think that message has been effectively communicated yet,” using another name for the Islamic State.

Across the border in Syria, Russia is causing damage on the ground – including what many US defense officials have said is a blatant disregard for civilian casualties.

In early October, shortly after Russia began its incursion into Syria, “President Obama called it quote ‘a big mistake’ and quote ‘doomed to fail.’ Do you believe 4-1/2 months later that Russia’s incursion into Syria is a big mistake from their standpoint?” asked Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas.

Indeed, the aspiring superpower may be having second thoughts, Clapper said.

“They haven’t enjoyed the success I think that Putin anticipated. I think he believed that he would go in quickly and be able to leave early, and that is not turning out to be the case,” he said. “They are getting into a long-term stalemate themselves.”

This in turn might make them more amenable to political negotiations that could out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and end a tragic war. 

“I think the Russians are not wedded to Assad personally, but they have the same challenge as everyone else,” Clapper said. “If not Assad, who? And I don’t know that they’ve come up with an alternative to him, either.”

As for the military budget, also in play on Tuesday: The Pentagon has asked Congress for more than $582 billion in funding. It's a 0.4 percent increase over the last budget, but roughly $24 billion less than the Pentagon banked on having last year when it projected ahead.

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