WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2011 — Terrorism –- specifically al-Qaida -– remains the greatest threat to the United States, the director of national intelligence said on Capitol Hill, yesterday.
“Counterterrorism is our top priority, because Job One for the intelligence community, mind you, is to keep Americans safe and the homeland secure,” James R. Clapper Jr. told the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “The intelligence community has helped thwart many potentially devastating attacks.”
The United States has made progress against the organization that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Clapper said. “We’ve apprehended numerous dangerous actors throughout the world and weakened much of al-Qaida’s core capabilities,” he added, “including its operations, training and its propaganda.”
U.S. intelligence agencies work closely with foreign partners to detect and prevent terrorist actions, and all remain vigilant, the intelligence director told the committee members. But although al-Qaida’s capabilities have been degraded, he said, the organization still can launch attacks.
“We’re especially focused on al-Qaida’s resolve to target Americans for recruitment and to spawn affiliate groups around the world,” the director said. “We also see disturbing instances of self-radicalization among our own citizens.”
In 2010, intelligence experts disrupted plots and provided information that led to the arrest of homegrown violent extremists, Clapper said. The numbers of American terrorists is small, he added, but he noted that they have disproportionate impact because “they understand our homeland, have connections here, and have easier access to U.S. facilities.” Counterterrorism is central to the intelligence community’s overseas operations, notably in Afghanistan, Clapper said. Although there has been great work against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, he told the House panel, there is no question that the people of Afghanistan are up against a determined insurgency.
“There’s troubling attrition within [Afghanistan’s] security forces, and corruption -– including extortion, land seizures and drug trafficking –- feed the insurgency,” he said. Meanwhile, Pakistan has made real progress in confronting al-Qaida and its allies, Clapper added.
The intelligence community also is concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Clapper said.
“The proliferation threat environment is a fluid, borderless arena that reflects the broader global reality of an increasingly free movement of people, goods and information,” the director said. “While this environment is critical for peaceful scientific and economic advances, it also allows the materials, technologies and know-how related to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, as well as missile delivery systems, to be shared with ease and speed.”
Iran is the key challenge, Clapper said, as it continues to push for nuclear materials and capabilities, and proliferates missile technology.
“In the months following the 2009 Iranian elections, we saw a popular movement challenge the authority of its government,” Clapper said. “We also saw the Iranian government crack down with harsher authoritarian control. We see a disturbing confluence of events: an Iran that is increasingly rigid, autocratic, dependent on coercion to maintain control, and defiant towards the West, and an Iran that continues to advance its uranium-enrichment capabilities — along with what appears to be the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if its leaders choose to do so.”
North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs also pose a serious threat, both regionally and beyond, Clapper said. “Pyongyang has signaled a willingness to re-engage in dialogue, but it also craves international recognition as a nuclear-weapons power,” he told the panel.
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and other countries demonstrate the reality that in an interconnected, interdependent world, instability can arise and spread quickly beyond borders, he said, noting tensions and instability intelligence professionals have reported in the Middle East and North Africa. “Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted,” Clapper said.
The intelligence director stressed that intelligence can reduce uncertainty for decision makers, but can’t eliminate it. “We are not clairvoyant,” he said.
The intelligence community has provided critical intelligence throughout the crisis in North Africa and has been reporting on unrest, demographic changes, economic uncertainty and the lack of political expression for these frustrations for decades, Clapper said. “Economic challenges have become paramount and cannot be underestimated — from increasing debt to fluctuating growth, to China’s economic and military rise,” he said.
The intelligence community is extremely focused on cyber threats, Clapper said, and their potential effects on national security and economic prosperity.
“This threat is increasing in scope and scale, and its impact is difficult to overstate,” the director said. “Industry estimates the production of malicious software has reached its highest level yet, with an average of 60,000 new programs or variations identified each day. Some of these are what we define as advanced persistent threats, which are difficult to detect and counter.”
America faces a wide range of foreign intelligence threats to economic, political and military interests at home and abroad, Clapper said, noting that unauthorized disclosures of sensitive and classified U.S. government information pose substantial challenges.
“Perhaps the most blatant example, of course, is the unauthorized downloading of classified documents subsequently released by WikiLeaks,” he said. “From an intelligence perspective, these disclosures have clearly been very damaging.”
An interconnected intelligence team is confronting the threats of an interconnected world, Clapper told the panel.
“The intelligence community is better able to understand the vast array of interlocking concerns and trends, anticipate developments to stay ahead of adversaries precisely because we operate as an integrated community,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)