The Envoy

Four takeaways from spy chiefs’ brief on global threats

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DNI James Clapper (left), CIA Director David Petraeus (center), DIA Ronald Burgess, FBI Director (standing 2nd …

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director David Petraeus gave their annual global threat assessment to the Senate Intelligence panel Tuesday, eight months after the U.S. intelligence community celebrated its role in the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. While the two were optimistic about the decline of al-Qaida, they noted that its fragmentation poses continued risks. In addition, Clapper said, the United States in the future is likely to face an increasingly complex security environment with no single predominant threat.

"The capabilities, technologies, know-how, communications and environmental forces not confined to borders are occurring with astonishing speed," Clapper told lawmakers Tuesday. "Never before has the intelligence community been asked to master such a complex environment."

Here four key take-aways from the testimony. You can read DNI Director Clapper's unclassified 2012 global threat assessment here (PDF).

1. Core al-Qaida is on the run, but the decentralized jihadi movement still poses a threat

The killing of Osama bin Laden last May as well as the assassination of several other top al-Qaida leaders has severely fragmented al-Qaida's organization. "A new group of leaders, even if they could be found, would have difficulty integrating into the organization and compensating for mounting losses," Clapper wrote in his testimony.

But franchises in weak and failed states such as Yemen, Somalia, and north Africa are still dangerous and plotting attacks against the United States. The global jihadi movement "will continue to be a dangerous transnational force," Clapper wrote. "Terrorist groups and individuals sympathetic to the jihadist movement will have access to the recruits, financing, arms and explosives, and safe havens needed to execute operations."

2. Iran undecided on assembling nuclear weapons; but willing to carry out attacks on the United States

In Clapper's written testimony, he pointed to last year's plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States as a sign that members of Iran's leadership show a new willingness to conduct attacks in the United States.

The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran's leaders have not yet made the decision whether to produce nuclear weapons. However, the spy chief said, Iran is keeping its options open to do so by pursuing materials needed for a nuclear bomb.

Senator Olympia Snow asked Clapper and Petraeus at the hearing how we would know if Iran decides to make a nuclear weapon.

"A clear indicator would be enrichment of uranium to 90% level," Clapper replied (90 percent is weapon grade). "That would be a pretty good indicator of their seriousness. There [are] however, some other things they still need to do."

CIA Director Petraeus added that Iran is pursuing "various components" needed for a nuclear weapon, including "enrichment, weaponization research and delivery" mechanisms, he told Snowe.

3. Cyber attacks are a growing threat

Clapper noted growing intelligence community concern about the United States' vulnerability to cyber-threats, from both state-sponsored and non-state hackers from places like China and Russia. Senators at the hearing expressed frustration that the U.S. government still lacks an integrated strategy for confronting the problem. "Cyber threats pose a critical national and economic security concern due to the continued advances in—and growing dependency on—the information technology (IT) that underpins nearly all aspects of modern society," Clapper wrote.

But while "our technical advancements in detection and attribution shed light on malicious activity," he continued, "cyber intruders continue to explore new means to circumvent defensive measures."

4. U.S. facing increasingly complex security challenges, as intel community faces fiscal constraints

The intelligence community is struggling to assess a world of fast-paced, inter-connected challenges--in a time of fiscal constraints.

"Although I believe that counterterrorism, counterproliferation, cybersecurity, and counterintelligence are at the immediate forefront of our security concerns, it is virtually impossible to rank—in terms of long-term importance—the numerous, potential threats to US national security," Clapper wrote. "The United States no longer faces—as in the Cold War—one dominant threat. Rather, it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats—and the actors behind them—that constitute our biggest challenge."

"Indeed, even the four categories noted above are also inextricably linked, reflecting a quickly changing international environment of rising new powers, rapid diffusion of power to nonstate actors and ever greater access by individuals and small groups to lethal technologies," Clapper said.

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