Summarizing his annual assessment of the threats facing the United States, National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “unpredictable instability has become the new normal.”
That’s a trend that will continue, he said.
Clapper’s testimony Tuesday covered a wide array of threats, from cyber-security to drugs to the Islamic State (ISIL) to space. At one point during the hearing, Clapper referred to this year’s report as a “litany of doom.”
“Violent extremists are operationally active in about 40 countries, seven countries are experiencing a collapse of central government authority, 14 others face regime-threatening or violent instability or both, another 59 countries face a significant risk of instability through 2016,” he told the Senate panel.
Here are some of the highlights, by topic:
The Self-Proclaimed Islamic State Group
In this year’s full report, Clapper wrote that “homegrown violent extremists” will likely pose “the most significant Sunni terrorist threat to the US homeland in 2016.” This will likely be confined to people inspired by the militant group rather than people with direct guidance from its leaders.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Clapper described ISIL as “the pre-eminent global terrorist threat,” adding that the group’s “estimated strength worldwide exceeds that of al-Qaida.”
He told the panel that “in 2014, the FBI arrested nine ISIL supporters — in 2015, that number increased over five-fold.”
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen Vincent Stewart, who was also testifying, said, “ISIL will probably attempt to conduct additional attacks in Europe and attempt to direct attacks on the U.S. homeland in 2014.”
In the Middle East, Stewart said that “in 2016, the growing number of anti-ISIL forces and the emerging resource shortfalls will probably challenge ISIL’s ability to govern in Iraq and Syria.” However, he noted that the group will likely maintain control of the Sunni Arab urban centers it currently occupies.
Both Clapper and Stewart described increasing competition in space, especially from Russia and China.
“About 80 countries are now engaged in the space domain,” Clapper said. “Russia and China understand how our military fights and how heavily we rely on space.”
Stewart went further:
“China and Russia increasingly recognize the strategic value of space and are focused on diminishing our advantage with the intent of denying U.S. the use of space in the event of conflict. Both countries are conducting anti- satellite research and developing anti-satellite weapons, making the space domain increasingly competitive, contested, and congested.”
Clapper’s annual report states that the more aggressive push from Russian and China may threaten U.S. use of “military, civil, and commercial space systems.”
Heroin seizures at the southern U.S. border “have doubled since 2010,” Clapper said. Here’s more:
“Over 10,000 people died of heroin overdoses in 2014, much of it laced with fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. In that same year, more than 20,000 died from opioid overdoses. And cocaine production in Columbia, where most U.S. supply originates, has increased significantly.”
The Iran Deal
Following last month’s Implementation Day milestone, Clapper testified that the U.S. intelligence community is in a “distrust and verify mode” to ensure that Iran complies with the nuclear deal.
“There are half a dozen or so ambiguities — may be others — but certainly half a dozen or so ambiguities in the agreement that we have identified and we’re going to be very vigilant about reigning in compliance,” he said.
Later in the hearing, Clapper added, “We have no evidence thus far that they’re moving towards a violation.”
Cybersecurity And Counter-Intelligence
Increasing use of “smart” devices and artificial intelligence have major implications for security, Clapper said both in testimony and the annual report.
While the benefits are clear, the report states that “devices, designed and fielded with minimal security requirements and testing, and an ever-increasing complexity of networks could lead to widespread vulnerabilities in civilian infrastructure and US Government systems.”
State and non-state actors are trying to take advantage of any vulnerabilities, he told the Senate panel. Here’s more from Clapper:
“The threat from foreign intelligence entities, both state and non-state, is persistent, complex and evolving, targeting a collection of U.S. political, military, economic and technical information by foreign intelligence services continues unabated. Russia and China pose the greatest threat, followed by Iran and Cuba on a lesser scale.”
When asked by Arizona Sen. John McCain about whether he’d ever seen such diverse challenges to security, Clapper replied, “It’s kind of a cliche, but it’s actually true — in my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises that we confront as we do today.”