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U.S. Intelligence Sees Cyber Threats Eclipsing Terrorism

The latest national threat assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies suggests a greater threat to the United States from "cyber threats" and climate change than terrorism or Iran.

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Inter Press Service

Cyber threats appear to have largely replaced terrorism as posing the greatest risks to U.S. national security, which also confronts major longer-term challenges from the effects of natural resource shortages and climate change, according to the latest in a series of annual threat assessments by the U.S. intelligence community.

The report, delivered in testimony by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, also cited economic threats to U.S. security, including the possible impact of the ongoing Eurozone crisis on social stability and defence budgets in Europe and Washington’s failure to resolve its fiscal deficits as most recently manifested by the so-called sequester – the indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts in all discretionary spending that took effect Mar. 1.

“Let me now be blunt for you and the American people,” Clapper told the Senate panel. “Sequestration forces the intelligence community to reduce all intelligence activities and functions, without regard to impact on our mission.”

The intelligence community (IC) faces a roughly seven percent cut in its roughly 72-billion-dollar budget. The IC’s budget reached an all-time high of 80 billion dollars last year.

On other issues, the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community”, as the report is called, noted that the so-called “Arab Spring” had “unleashed destabilizing ethnic and sectarian rivalries” across the Middle East and that new governments there faced major challenges in controlling “ungoverned spaces” and overcoming economic hardship.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes pose a “serious threat” to the U.S. and to East Asian security, according to Clapper, although its leaders were focused primarily on “deterrence and defense”.

He also reiterated the intelligence community’s six-year-old position that, while Iran is steadily building its capacity to develop a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon, it has not yet decided to build one.

“We assess Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige, and regional influence and give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should a decision be made to do so. We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that the intelligence community was confident it would discover any attempt by Iran to divert its enriched uranium stockpiles to a weapons programme.

The report also cited threats in specific global regions, highlighting more than two dozen countries in South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and Europe, as well as the Middle East and North Africa.

The annual threat assessment report represents the consensus view of the 17 agencies that make up the IC, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as number of agencies that fall under the Pentagon’s jurisdiction.

While the report does not explicitly prioritise threats, the fact that he opened this year’s testimony with an extensive discussion of “Cyber” – in contrast to “Terrorism” that has led the litany of threats featured in the DNI’s testimony over the last decade – was seen by analysts here as both remarkable and significant.

“We are in a major transformation because our critical infrastructure, economy, personal lives, and even basic understanding of – and interaction with – the world are becoming more intertwined with digital technologies and the Internet,” he said.

“In some cases the world is applying digital technologies faster than our ability to understand the security implications and mitigate potential risks.”

The IC was particularly concerned with “cyber attacks” – defined as a “non-kinetic offensive operation intended to create physical effects or manipulate disrupt, or delete data” – and “cyber espionage”.

While he said there is only a “remote chance” of a major cyber attack against U.S. critical infrastructure systems that could, for example, cause a regional power outage during the next two years and that the most advanced cyber actors “such as Russia and China” are unlikely to launch one outside an actual military conflict, isolated state or non-state actors could deploy less-sophisticated attacks against poorly protected U.S. networks.

It noted, in particular, an attack last August against the Saudi oil company ARAMCO – widely believed to have been launched by Iran – that effectively destroyed 30,000 computers, as well as a denial-of-service campaign against websites of several U.S. banks and stock exchanges.

It also cited cyber actors targeting classified networks to gain sensitive information, especially about U.S. weapons systems, “almost certainly allowing our adversaries to close the technological gap between our respective militaries, slowly neutralizing one of our key advantages in the international arena.”

While Clapper did not explicitly accuse China of such activity, his testimony came the day after President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, charged Beijing with carrying out such activities and noted that the issue “has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our government”.

On terrorism, Clapper said violent Islamist movements have become increasingly decentralised, but that “the Arab Spring has generated a spoke in threats to U.S. interests in the region that likely will endure until political upheaval stabilizes and security forces regain their capabilities.”

The Pakistan-based core Al-Qaeda, he said, has continued to suffer losses over the past year and is now “probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West.”

At the same time, however, he stressed that the rise of transitional governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, as well as the unrest in Syria and Mali, have “offered opportunities for established (Al-Qaeda) affiliates, aspiring groups, and like-minded individuals to conduct attacks against U.S. interests,” such as the one that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi last September.

He also cited Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Tayibba (LT); the latter, he said, has the “long-term potential to evolve into a permanent and even HAMAS/Hizballah-like presence in Pakistan.”

As for Iran and Hezbollah itself, Clapper noted they prefer to avoid confrontation with the U.S. despite what he alleged to be an increased level of terrorist activity on both their parts.

On climate change and natural resources, the report stressed that competition and scarcity “are growing security threats” and that “(e)xtreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.”

Disruptions in food supplies caused by, among other things, extreme weather conditions, competition for land between a number of actors, including wealthy foreign countries that are buying up land in poor countries, and population growth, are likely to lead to political violence and insurgencies. Much the same applies to reductions in freshwater supplies.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Adm. Samuel Locklear, told the Boston Globe that the impact of global warming on affected populations is “probably the most likely thing that is going to happen …that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

He said PACOM was engaging the militaries of other regional countries, including China and India, about possible co-operation in dealing with the impact in the Asia-Pacific.

“If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly,” he told the Globe.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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