​US intel chiefs see threats, danger everywhere

Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper (Reuters / Gary Cameron)
The world is fraught with dangers for the United States – including cyber attacks, violent extremism, the so-called Islamic State, organized crime and threats from Russia and China – the country's intelligence chiefs testified on Thursday.

In the annual hearing on worldwide threats before the Senate Armed Services Committee, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. General Vincent Stewart (USMC), reported on the intelligence community’s assessment of current and potential threats to American security and interests.

Clapper opened his prepared remarks by discussing cyber threats, which are “increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity of impact.” However, he deemed the likelihood of a “catastrophic attack” remote, and said the intelligence community anticipates more of an ongoing series of attacks from a variety of sources, imposing cumulative costs.

“The cyber threat cannot be eliminated; rather, cyber risk must be managed,” Clapper said.

Later in the hearing, while answering a question about the ways of countering the Islamic State’s extensive use of social media, Clapper noted: “The challenge is, how do you take down the internet?”

According to Clapper, 2014 was “the most lethal year for global terrorism” in the 45 years the statistics have been kept. Half of all the attacks and deaths occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This contradicts earlier remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that this was a “period of less daily threat to Americans and to people in the world than normally.”

While much of the testimony was decidedly gloomy, the director of national intelligence did not seem particularly concerned about the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL). According to US intelligence estimates, the group is running out of money, cutting the pay of its fighters, and even resorting to conscription. Clapper estimated the strength of IS at anywhere between 20,000 and 32,000 fighters.

However, if the Islamic State changed its focus from controlling territory to attacking the West, the group’s access to radicalized Westerners who have fought in Syria and Iraq could provide a ready “pool of operatives.” Clapper noted that more than 20,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries have gone to Syria since the civil war there began in 2011, and at least 3,400 of those were Westerners.

Clapper did say a “relatively small number” of Americans who successfully joined IS have returned to the US, “and we have not identified any of them engaged in attack plotting.”

As for Syria, the war there is “trending in the Assad regime’s favor” according to Lt. Gen. Stewart, but military intelligence believes it unlikely that Damascus would be able to decisively defeat the rebels in 2015.

Both intelligence directors brought up Russia and China as the most significant state sources of concern, referring to new weapons systems, cyber commands, and increased confrontation over Ukraine and the South China Sea. Both committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and senior member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) raised questions about arming the government in Kiev against what they termed “Russian aggression.”

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Clapper said the delivery of weapons might prompt a Russian reaction that could “further remove the very thin fig leaf of their position” that Russia was not involved in Ukraine. Prompted by McCain, he stressed he was personally in favor of sending weapons, but stressed that would be a policy decision, not an intelligence one.

No mention was made of Clapper’s 2013 comments regarding NSA surveillance of Americans, for which the director of national intelligence has been roundly criticized in the media. When activists tried to bring it up at the end of the hearing, they were swiftly arrested.