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Intelligence Leaders Identify Top Threats Facing U.S. in Annual Assessment

The leaders of the U.S. intelligence committee were put under pressure at a hearing Wednesday morning on the threats facing the homeland and leaks of information in 2013. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and other top officials all took turns in the hot seat answering questions from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The officials were called before Congress to discuss the intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, but were often pushed off topic to discuss the National Security Agency (NSA), reviews at the CIA, and misinformation in the media. Clapper and Brennan both tried to steer the questioning back to threats facing America and the assessment, calling for senators to discuss other questions with them in a closed door session. They were mainly successful, bringing the focus of the hearing back to the assessment, which outlines threats facing the United States with a renewed focus on cybersecurity and terrorism.


Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) commended the intelligence community on placing cybersecurity first in its threat assessment, saying that many Americans are unaware of the threat and possible impact that cyberattacks have on the United States. Senator Barabra Mikulski (D-MD) agreed with Risch, asking FBI Director Comey whether the recent breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus have caused new concern and whether that has been lost in the discussion of Edward Snowden and the NSA.

Comey said that the leaks have “complicated the discussion about what tools” the FBI uses to go after cyber criminals, and that there needs to be legislation passed by Congress to make cybersecurity more of a focus. “People need to realize that there is threat of fraud…because we’ve connected our lives to the Internet,” Comey explained.

He called for Congress to pass legislation that would encourage more information sharing among the private sector to combat cyber criminals, and to teach everyone the “rules of the road” on how to share information with the government. Congress has introduced a number of bills on cybersecurity, but so far neither the House nor the Senate have moved to pass legislation on the topic.

One main threat facing the United States on cybersecurity is Russia because it wants to change the international system for Internet governance that would compromise U.S. interests and values. “[Russia’s] Ministry of Defense (MOD) is establishing its own cyber command, according to senior MOD officials, which will seek to perform many of the functions similar to those of the U.S. Cyber Command,” the assessment says. “Russian intelligence services continue to target U.S. and allied personnel with access to sensitive computer network information.”

One example of an attack presented in the assessment comes from last year when a Canadian naval officer confessed to “betraying information from shared top secret-level computer networks to Russian agents for five years.”

Another ominous threat facing the United States in cybersecurity is China as “Chinese leaders continue to pursue dual tracks of facilitating Internet access for economic development and commerce and policing online behaviors deemed threatening to social order and regime survival,” the assessment says. “Internationally, China also seeks to revise the multi-stakeholder model Internet governance while continuing its expansive worldwide program of network exploitation and intellectual property theft.”

These specific threats weren’t addressed in the hearing, but overall senators and intelligence officials both expressed concerns that the issue of cyberattacks is not being addressed thoroughly.

Additional cyber issues addressed in the report included critical infrastructure becoming an “enticing target” to malicious actors as they continue to move online. “Although newer architectures provide flexibility, functionality, and resilience, large segments of legacy architecture remain vulnerable to attack, which might cause significant economic or human impact.”


The threat assessment also discussed the possibility of terrorists developing “offensive cyber capabilities” and the use of cyberspace for propaganda and influence operations, financial activities, and recruitment.

Director Clapper said he couldn’t say if the threat of terrorism is any less now then it was in 2001, but that “our ability to discern it is much improved over what it was in the early part of the 2000 period.” Since that time, al Qaeda has been forced to disperse and become decentralized, creating a different threat that is a “harder one to watch and detect” because of that dispersion.

Terrorists have also “gotten smarter” about how the United States collects its information on terrorist groups and how we attempt to thwart their efforts. Brennan said that because of the leaks and declassified documents released this past year about surveillance in the United States, terrorists often just have to pick up the morning paper or do a few Google searches to find information that they can then use to evade detection.

While al Qaeda has been forced to disperse to Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Syria, and other countries, the most concerning region that could potentially attack the homeland is the al Qaeda presence in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to the assessment, “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has attempted several times to attack the U.S. Homeland” and the intelligence community “judge[s] that the group poses a significant threat and remains intent on targeting the United States and U.S. interests overseas.”

Combating this threat will become increasingly more difficult for the intelligence community as the federal government makes changes to the NSA surveillance programs—highlighted earlier this month by President Barack Obama—and as budget cuts continue to take effect. Those two together are the “perfect storm” that the United States is going to have to deal with, Clapper says.

Additional topics discussed in the threat assessment were weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, and economic trends. For more information or to read the threat assessment in full, visit the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Web sitehere.