Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Worldwide Threats Briefing Highlights

by Micah Zenko
March 13, 2013

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 12, 2013 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters). Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 12, 2013 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Yesterday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) held its annual open hearing on “National Security Threats to the United States.” First started in 1994, the hearing is the rare instance where the leaders of the Intelligence Community (IC) provide a public overview of the trends in U.S. national security threats and answer senators’ questions. Since the question and answer section is unscripted—unlike the prepared statements for the record—there are often new or interesting wrinkles in how the IC perceives the world. I have heard from intelligence staffers and officials who warily watch this hearing, cringing whenever their bosses answer questions that verge on the realm of classified information. I actually had the opportunity to attend part of this hearing, and witnessed staffers furiously scribbling notes during discussions of highly sensitive issues like Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Representing the IC was James Clapper, director of national intelligence; John Brennan, director of the CIA; Robert Mueller, director of the FBI; Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; and Philip Goldberg, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. Compared to prior years, there were fewer revelations and direct questioning from the committee. Nevertheless, here are some of the highlights:

FEINSTEIN: Since last year’s threat hearing, our staff has been keeping a tally of terrorism-related arrests in the United States. With the arrest on March 5th of Riyadh Khan for conspiring to provide materiel support to terrorists in connection with the suicide bombing of ISI headquarters in Pakistan, there have now been 105 terrorism-related arrests in the United States in the past 4 years…Another indicator of the success of our criminal justice system in prosecuting terrorists is that in 2011 the Department of Justice released a list of terrorism trials conducted since 2001 and reported a total of 438 convictions from September 11, 2001 to December 31st, 2010. So in those 9 years, 438 convictions in federal courts….

CLAPPER: I have serious reservations about conducting open hearings on the worldwide threat, especially the question and answer sessions. While I believe it’s important to keep the American public informed about the threats our nation faces, I believe that can be done through unclassified opening statements, and statements for the record. As you also know, we’re ready to answer any and all of your questions in closed session. But an open hearing on intelligence matters is something of a contradiction in terms….

CLAPPER: Threats are growing more interconnected and viral. Events that had first seemed local and irrelevant can quickly set off transnational disruptions that affect U.S. national interests. It’s a world in which our definition of war now includes a soft version. We can add cyber and financial to the list of weapons being used against us. And such attacks can be deniable and non-attributable. So when it comes to distinct threat areas, our statement this year leads with cyber, and it’s hard to overemphasize its significance. Increasingly state and non-state actors are gaining and using cyber expertise….

This year we include natural resources as a factor affecting national security, because shifts in human geography, climate, disease, and competition for natural resources have national security implications. Many countries that are extremely important to U.S. interests that sit in already volatile areas of the world are living with extreme water and food stress that can destabilize governments….

Water challenges include not only problems with quality and quantity, but with flooding. Some countries will almost certainly exert leverage for their own water interests and water infrastructure can be considered a viable target for terrorists. In the United States, Germany and Japan less than 15 percent of household expenditures are for food. In India and China that figure climbs to more than 20 percent. In Egypt, Vietnam and Nigeria it rises to greater than 35 percent. And in Algeria, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan more than 45 percent of household expenses are just for food….

On the issue of terrorism, the threat from core Al Qaida and the potential for a massive coordinated attack on the United States is diminished, but the global Jihadist movement is a more diversified, decentralized and persistent threat. Lone wolves, domestic extremists and Jihadist inspired groups remain determined to attack western interests as they’ve done most recently in Libya and Algeria.

The turmoil in the Arab world has brought a spike in threats to U.S. interests. The rise of new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, along with ongoing unrest in Syria and Mali provide openings for opportunistic individuals and groups. In these and other regions of the world, extremists can take advantage of diminished counter-terrorism capabilities, porous borders, and internal stresses, most especially a high proportion of unemployed young males.

Weapons of mass destruction development and proliferation is another major threat to U.S. interest. North Korea demonstrated capabilities that threaten the United States and the security environment in east Asia. It announced last month that it concluded its third nuclear test, and last April it displayed what appears to be a road mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

We believe North Korea has taken initial steps towards fielding a system although it remains untested. It also used its Taepo Dong-2 launch vehicle to put a satellite in orbit in December, thus demonstrating its long range missile technology. These developments have been accompanied with extremely aggressive public rhetoric towards the United States and the Republic of Korea.

Iran continues to develop technical expertise in a number of areas including Uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles from which it could draw it if decided to build missile deliverable weapons. These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Tehran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so. Such a decision will reside with the supreme leader, and at this point we don’t know if he’ll eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.

ROCKEFELLER: I think you’re absolutely superb, absolutely superb. I’ve been through every — for the last almost 30 years, I’ve been through every CIA director. I think you’re the best. The — and I mean that….

We have to find a way for us to trust each other. And I don’t think that we’ve — maybe mutually. But in any event, we haven’t figured it out. Things after the confirmation went directly back to the way they were from 2001, ’02, to 2007. We had a classified briefing. All of our staff was kicked out. All of our staff was kicked out, with one exception — two exceptions. I was outraged…

But we cannot be told that things which could be in our purview to look at, which in fact have nothing in them which is a threat to anybody — is a threat to anybody at all, that we can’t have that, or that our staff cannot be in attendance. What would happen if we had you here and all the folks behind you had to stay out of the room, all of you? That’s the comparable situation. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an intelligence analyst or specialist. I need advice. I need counsel. I need staff. I have a superb one, as we all do.

BRENNAN: Senator, like most hostages, I was excluded from the ransom negotiations during my confirmation process….

CLAPPER: Clearly, the sanctions [on Iran] have had profound impact on Iran’s economy, by any measure. Whether it’s inflation, unemployment, the availability of commodities et cetera. And that situation is getting worse. At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, that has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership, specifically the supreme leader’s approach. We can go into perhaps more detail discussion in a classified, in a closed setting about some indications that I think would be of interest to you, and I probably better let it go at that….

BRENNAN: Senator, the only thing I would add is that on your first point related to cyber, the seriousness and diversity of the threats this country faces in the cyber domain are increasing on a daily basis. And from my perspective I think this is one of the real significant national security challenges we face. And the threat is going to continue and it’s going to grow. What we need to do, as a country, is to reduce the vulnerabilities and take the mitigation steps….

WYDEN: Director Brennan, first of all, congratulations. I appreciated a chance to talk about a number of issues with you previously. And I’m going to be asking you additional questions about drones and targeted killings in the days ahead [in closed hearings]….

GOLDBERG: What I can tell you, Senator Collins, is that the overall amount of Iranian oil that is being exported is down considerably, that there were workarounds within the exemptions made for those who reduced over time. And that’s a constant evaluation and consideration. But the actual amount of Iranian oil being exported is down. And it’s probably — well, I think maybe I’d reserve on the exact quantity for a closed session….

HEINRICH: Director Clapper, this committee spent an awful lot of time examining the process that resulted in the unclassified Benghazi talking points. And you’ve touched on that a little bit this morning. I just have one simple question around that that I want to ask you. In your professional view of that process, was it in any way unduly politicized?

CLAPPER: Absolutely not.

HEINRICH: I want to move on to Syria for a few minutes. And just to sort of set the table, I wanted to ask how you would describe the current state of the opposition in Syria.

CLAPPER: Well, the opposition is gaining in strength. It is increasingly gaining territory. At the same time, the regime is — as I indicated in my statement — is experiencing shortages in manpower and logistics.

That said, the opposition is still fragmented. There are literally hundreds of these opposition battalions of varying strengths and cuts, and there are attempts being made by the opposition to bring some overarching command and control to that.

The bad news in all this I believe, with respect to the opposition of course, is the increasing prevalence of al-Nusra Front, which is the al-Qaeda in Iraq offshoot that has gained strength both numerically and otherwise in Syria. And they’ve been pretty astute about this, and that they are, where they can, providing more and more municipal services in what is a very terrible situation from a humanitarian standpoint.

As well, there have been a growing infusion of foreign fighters that have been attracted to the conflict in Syria who have joined the opposition. And so the opposition in my view, and the al-Nusra Front specifically, has been very — very astute about that.

The question of course comes up, how long will Assad last? And our standard answer is his days are numbered. We just don’t know the number. I think our assessment is he is very committed to hanging in there and sustaining his control of — of the regime….

KING: My question on Iran is there a sufficient middle class which has the political power to have any influence on the regime’s decisions based upon the squeeze applied by the sanctions? In other words, does the supreme ayatollah care that his economy is going down?

CLAPPER: Excellent question, sir. And yes, he does. He does care. And I think it does concern them about the deterioration in the economy because of the prospect for promoting unrest among the citizenry of Iran. And we are seeing more signs of that.

At the same time though, I think the supreme leader’s standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq War. And I don’t believe — he doesn’t believe they’ve reached that — that point yet. And of course, as the supreme leader looks westward or looks at us, he can argue that, you know, we’re on the decline. Our influence is declining, particularly in that part of the world. And so, you know, his view of the world may not be necessarily fact based, particularly when it comes to internal conditions in his country….

KING: Turning again to another longstanding part of U.S. policy, which is nuclear deterrence, which has been our policy since the late ’40s, does deterrence work with a country like North Korea or Iran? And sort of the same question, do they care? Mutually assured destruction, are they responsive to that kind of rational thinking that has guided U.S. policy for 50 years? Are these countries, like the Soviet Union, that we can have some confidence that they’re going to make a rational decision, knowing that if they do something crazy, that they’re going to be wiped out?

CLAPPER: Well, I do think they both understand that. I’m not sure that — to speak to North Korea — where they would expect us to use a nuclear weapon. But they do — they certainly respect the capability of our military. They’ve gone to school on what we’ve done starting with Desert Storm. I know that for a fact. So I think deterrence in this broadest context does work and does have impact on the decision-making calculus of these two countries

CHAMBLISS: Tell the American public what keeps Matt Olsen awake at night?

OLSEN. From an overseas perspective it is the decentralized nature of the threat from al-Qaida. As we’ve talked about this morning, the threat from core al-Qaida is greatly diminished. It is nowhere near where it was 10 years ago. But we have seen that threat become geographically dispersed as affiliated groups and groups sympathetic to al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s message have grown in areas, for example, in North Africa.

So probably the most significant of those affiliated groups, from our perspective, is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. We’ve seen AQAP seek to carry out attacks against aviation targets three times over the last several years. So I would put AQAP at the top of the list from an overseas perspective.

Looking closer to home and the homeland, the number one concern for an attack, albeit small scale or unsophisticated attack, likely comes from home grown extremists who may well be inspired or radicalized by the message al-Qaida sends. But would be more likely a person more likely to act alone or in a very small group to carry out an unsophisticated attack, and that’s very difficult for us from an intelligence perspective to see in advance, and therefore to be able to disrupt….

CHAMBLISS: Now, let me address that to you also, Director Mueller, since the FBI has jurisdiction over domestic criminal and terrorist activity. And I’d like your comments on what you see taking place from the standpoint of home grown terrorists.

MUELLER: Let me start by saying that the threat from AQAP, particularly with airliners, has not dissipated over the years. There’s still that threat out there. The individuals who were responsible for the previous attempts are still there. So I join him with identifying that as a principle concern overseas.

More directly at home, it is the radicalization of individuals on the Internet who develop the desire and the will to undertake attacks. They’re finding it very difficult to find co-conspirators, others that would join in. But then again, the Internet can facilitate that kind of a meeting coming together for an attack. And it is the lone wolves that we are principally concerned about….

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