Intelligence Chief Says al-Qaida Still Greatest Threat

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)

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