U.S. Faces Broad Spectrum of Threats, Intel Leaders Say

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2012 — The Unit­ed States and its allies face a broad spec­trum of nation­al secu­ri­ty threats from ter­ror­ism, nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion and cyber attacks, intel­li­gence lead­ers told Con­gress mem­bers today.

Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence James R. Clap­per and Defense Intel­li­gence Agency Direc­tor Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr. pro­vid­ed their world­wide threat assess­ments to the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

Clap­per list­ed coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ism, nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion and cyber threats, as well as coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence, as being at the fore­front of nation­al secu­ri­ty con­cerns. But, he added, “it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to rank – in terms of long-term impor­tance – the numer­ous poten­tial threats to U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty.”

Unlike in the Cold War days of hav­ing a sin­gle, large adver­sary, Clap­per said, “it is the mul­ti­plic­i­ty and inter­con­nect­ed­ness of poten­tial threats – and the actors behind them – that con­sti­tute our biggest chal­lenge.”

Burgess cit­ed a “broad spec­trum of dis­sim­i­lar threats,” includ­ing ris­ing region­al pow­ers and high­ly adap­tive and resilient transna­tion­al ter­ror­ist net­works.

Intel­li­gence shows the next three years will be a crit­i­cal tran­si­tion time in coun­tert­er­ror­ism, as groups like al-Qai­da dimin­ish in impor­tance and ter­ror­ist groups become more decen­tral­ized, Clap­per said.

U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism has caused al-Qai­da to lose so many top lieu­tenants since 2008 “that a new group of lead­ers, even if they could be found, would have dif­fi­cul­ty inte­grat­ing into the orga­ni­za­tion and com­pen­sat­ing for mount­ing loss­es,” the direc­tor said. Al-Qaida’s region­al affil­i­ates in Iraq, the Ara­bi­an penin­su­la and North Africa are expect­ed to “sur­pass the rem­nants of core al-Qai­da in Pak­istan,” he said.

With con­tin­ued, robust coun­tert­er­ror­ism efforts and coop­er­a­tion from inter­na­tion­al part­ners, Clap­per said, “there is a bet­ter-than-even chance that decen­tral­iza­tion will lead to frag­men­ta­tion of the move­ment with­in a few years,” although he added that ter­ror­ist groups will con­tin­ue to be a dan­ger­ous transna­tion­al force.

Intense coun­tert­er­ror­ism pres­sure has made it unlike­ly that a ter­ror­ist group would launch a chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, radi­o­log­i­cal or nuclear mass attack against the Unit­ed States in the next year, Clap­per said, but groups such as al-Qai­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la con­tin­ue to show inter­est in such an attack. Most ter­ror­ist groups, how­ev­er, remain local­ly focused, Clap­per said, not­ing that al-Qai­da in Iraq remains focused on over­throw­ing the Shi­ia-led gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad in favor of a Sun­ni-led gov­ern­ment.

In Africa, the al-Qai­da in the Islam­ic Maghreb and al-Shabaab orga­ni­za­tions strug­gle with inter­nal divi­sions and out­side sup­port, and have been dimin­ished by gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary pres­sure in Soma­lia, Kenya and Ethiopia, he said.

Clap­per also said that extrem­ist “lone actors,” includ­ing crim­i­nals and home­grown ter­ror­ists, con­tin­ue to be a con­cern inside the Unit­ed States. The intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, he added, will stay alert to events that might pre­cip­i­tate an attack, such as a per­ceived anti-Islam­ic bias, mil­i­tary involve­ment in anoth­er Mus­lim coun­try, or unrest over­seas.

In Afghanistan, Clap­per not­ed that the tran­si­tion of secu­ri­ty is suc­cess­ful so far in the first two phas­es. His assess­ment, he told the com­mit­tee, is that the gov­ern­ment in Kab­ul will con­tin­ue to make “incre­men­tal, frag­ile progress” this year in gov­er­nance, secu­ri­ty and devel­op­ment that is depen­dent on the sup­port of inter­na­tion­al part­ners.

The Tal­iban still are resilient, and NATO’s Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force will remain essen­tial at least through the end of this year, Clap­per said. Endur­ing sta­bil­i­ty depends heav­i­ly on sup­port from neigh­bor­ing states such as Pak­istan, he added, espe­cial­ly since many Euro­pean gov­ern­ments har­bor doubts about extend­ing finan­cial help past 2014.

The Tal­iban have lost influ­ence in the past year, most­ly where ISAF forces are con­cen­trat­ed, but its senior lead­ers con­tin­ue to enjoy safe havens in Pak­istan, the direc­tor said.

Al-Qaida’s impact on the Afghan insur­gency “is lim­it­ed,” he said, and it most often works with oth­er insur­gent groups that don’t depend on for­eign fight­ers.

Clap­per cit­ed incre­men­tal improve­ments with gov­ern­ments oper­at­ing in most provinces of Afghanistan. How­ev­er, he said, provinces still strug­gle to pro­vide essen­tial ser­vices, and access to offi­cial gov­er­nance most­ly is lim­it­ed to urban areas, leav­ing much of the rur­al areas iso­lat­ed.

The direc­tor acknowl­edged the intel­li­gence view is some­what more pes­simistic than that of U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers in Afghanistan, but he said that is not unusu­al. “I don’t find it a bad thing,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s healthy that there is a con­trast between what the oper­a­tional com­man­ders believe and what the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty assess­es.”

Burgess cit­ed “endem­ic cor­rup­tion and inef­fi­cien­cies” in the Afghan army and police that he said are under­min­ing secu­ri­ty efforts. Afghan forces rely on ISAF for logis­tics, intel­li­gence and trans­porta­tion and will need sus­tained men­tor­ing and sup­port, he said.

In Iraq, Burgess said, Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces have main­tained secu­ri­ty since U.S. troops left the coun­try in Decem­ber and prob­a­bly will sus­tain that through the next year. But, he said, Iraqi forces still need train­ing in a num­ber of areas, includ­ing logis­tics, intel­li­gence, and on new equip­ment pur­chased from the Unit­ed States.

The Iraqi forces have demon­strat­ed their abil­i­ty to “put forces on the street, con­duct sta­t­ic secu­ri­ty of high-pro­file sites, oper­ate check­points and con­duct intel­li­gence-dri­ven tar­get­ing,” Burgess said. But, he added, numer­ous secu­ri­ty vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties remain due to man­ning short­ages, logis­ti­cal short­falls and over­ly cen­tral­ized com­mand and con­trol.

Weapons pro­lif­er­a­tion con­tin­ues to be a con­cern, an increas­ing­ly among non-nation states, Clap­per said. “Bio­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal mate­ri­als and tech­nolo­gies, almost always dual-use, move eas­i­ly in our glob­al­ized econ­o­my, as do the per­son­nel with sci­en­tif­ic exper­tise to design and use them,” he said. “The lat­est dis­cov­er­ies in life sci­ences dif­fuse glob­al­ly and rapid­ly.”

Still, intel­li­gence shows no nation states have pro­vid­ed weapons of mass destruc­tion assis­tance to ter­ror­ist groups, and no non­state actors are tar­get­ing WMD sites in coun­tries with unrest, the direc­tor said. But that could change as gov­ern­ments become more unsta­ble, he added.

Mid­dle East secu­ri­ty large­ly will depend on how things work out for coun­tries where gov­ern­ments were top­pled in the Arab Spring, such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Clap­per said. The pos­si­ble col­lapse of the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment would have broad impli­ca­tions through­out the Mid­dle East, both intel­li­gence lead­ers told the sen­a­tors.

The two also out­lined threats from nations such as Iran and North Korea.

The pair told the com­mit­tee they could not say whether Iran is devel­op­ing nuclear weapons –, only that it “is keep­ing open the option” by devel­op­ing nuclear capa­bil­i­ties that bet­ter posi­tion it to do so. Also, they said, Iran is expand­ing its ura­ni­um enrich­ment capa­bil­i­ties, which can be used either for civ­il or weapons pur­pos­es, but the amount enriched so far does not appear to be weapons grade.

Intel­li­gence shows that Iran is capa­ble of pro­duc­ing nuclear weapons as well as the bal­lis­tic mis­siles to car­ry them, “mak­ing the cen­tral issue its polit­i­cal will to do so,” Clap­per said.

For now, Burgess said, “We assess that Tehran is not close to agree­ing to aban­don its nuclear pro­gram.”

Iran increas­ing­ly has shown a will­ing­ness to con­duct attacks out­side its bor­ders, and any future attacks prob­a­bly will be shaped by Tehran’s cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis of an attack, as well as their per­cep­tions of U.S. threats against the regime, Clap­per said. Because of that, he said, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty still can influ­ence Iran’s deci­sions, not­ing that increas­ing­ly tough eco­nom­ic sanc­tions seem to be work­ing.

“Iran can close the Strait of Hor­muz, at least tem­porar­i­ly,” and may launch nuclear weapons against U.S. forces in the area if attacked, Burgess said. He added, though, that the agency believes Iran is unlike­ly to ini­ti­ate an attack.

In North Korea, the gov­ern­ment views its nuclear capa­bil­i­ties as intend­ed for deter­rence, inter­na­tion­al pres­tige, and coer­cive diplo­ma­cy, Clap­per said. Its nuclear weapons and mis­sile pro­grams pose a seri­ous threat in East Asia, and lead­ers in Pyongyang have shown in the past their will­ing­ness to export them to places such as Iran and Syr­ia, he said.

Still, Clap­per said, intel­li­gence ana­lysts assessed that North Korea would con­sid­er using nuclear weapons only under nar­row cir­cum­stances, includ­ing a mil­i­tary defeat or loss of con­trol.

Mean­while, Clap­per and Burgess said cyber attacks, while large­ly invis­i­ble to the pub­lic, are grow­ing in scale and sophis­ti­ca­tion, and large­ly come from Chi­na and Rus­sia against U.S. cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ment sites.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)