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U.S. Intelligence Gives Congress a Roundup of World Threats

U.S. Intelligence Gives Congress a Roundup of World Threats

31 January 2012
Robert Mueller and James Clapper seated at table (AP Images)

FBI Director Robert Mueller, left, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared January 31 before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington.

The U.S. intelligence community scored some significant victories in 2011, notably the capture of Osama Bin Laden and other highly placed al-Qaida operatives, but a threat assessment delivered to a U.S. Senate committee January 31 indicated that the job will not be getting easier in 2012.

With more than 40 years of experience in this field, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence he’s never seen such a complex array of challenges. “Never before has the intelligence community been called upon to master such complexity on so many issues in such a resource- constrained environment,” he said.

Delivery of the worldwide threat assessment is an annual Washington ritual, as heads of all the government’s intelligence and counterterrorism agencies appear before congressional committees.

Terrorism remains the first threat cited in the report. But without bin Laden and the emergence of a strong new leader, al-Qaida is weakened, though Clapper predicted that regional affiliates will continue to promote the jihadist agenda.

Weapons proliferation is also a serious threat, Clapper said, citing Iran’s growing capability to produce a nuclear weapon and North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles.

Regarding Iran, members of the Senate panel engaged in some speculation about whether 2012 might be the year leaders in Tehran would move forward on assembly of a nuclear weapon. Clapper said the intelligence community has concluded that the decision will come down to a cost-benefit analysis.

“Starting with the Supreme Leader’s worldview, and the extent to which he thinks that would benefit the state of Iran or, conversely, not benefit,” Clapper said, “we don’t believe he’s made that decision yet.”

Cyberthreats also are cited as a major security concern because of the ever-increasing importance of information technology as a key part of the infrastructure of modern societies. The speed with which these technologies move into more and more aspects of life far exceeds the pace at which security practices are adopted and improved, according to the assessment.

“We foresee a cyber-environment in which emerging technologies are developed and implemented before security responses can be put in place,” the director of national intelligence said.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, representing the state of Maryland, spoke with some alarm about the country’s failure to be more aggressive in developing strategies to protect itself from cyberthreats and to counter cybercrime.

“Interpol [the International Police Organization] says cyber is the growing crime and it affects state secrets, trade secrets,” she said. Mikulski found fault with Congress for failing to address this security concern even though cyberattacks have been well documented in recent years as a danger to governments’ or organizations’ capacity to function.

Taking a global perspective, Clapper said unfolding events in many countries create potential security concerns for the United States. “Virtually every region has a bearing on our key concerns of terrorism, proliferation, cybersecurity and instability. And throughout the globe, wherever there are environmental stresses on water, food and natural resources, as well as health threats, economic crises and organized crime, we see ripple effects around the world and impacts on U.S. interests.”

Turning to Afghanistan and U.S. involvement there, Clapper said the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) still plays a significant role in maintaining stability. “ISAF’s efforts to partner with Afghan national security forces are encouraging, but corruption and governance challenges continue to threaten the Afghan forces’ operational effectiveness,” he said.

While some local governments in Afghanistan are creating structure, providing services to citizens remains problematic. The country remains quite dependent on international assistance to function, and the assessment finds doubt in the international community about the extension of that support beyond 2014.

In Iraq, the world threat assessment finds that the Iraqi government is capable of keeping violence in check, and Iraqi security forces are also showing competence in protecting their country. While political progress is slow, Iraqi citizens “are pursuing change through the political process, rather than violence,” according to the text of the report.

Representatives of seven agencies in intelligence and counterintelligence were on the panel to present the threat assessment and answer questions from lawmakers. Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota asked each member to sum up the last challenging decade by answering one question, “Have we made progress against terrorism?”

“Yes” was the answer offered by the agency heads, even as they acknowledged persistent threats remain.

While U.S. agencies have been successful in dismantling some terrorist networks, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller worries about so-called lone wolves, “those individuals who have been radicalized, trained on the Internet, have the capability of developing IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and other mechanisms on the Internet.”

Mueller says the FBI has had a number of successes in the past year apprehending such individuals, but he says lone wolves are a continued and unpredictable threat.