National security issues can be complex, but the U.S. government’s recent Worldwide Threat Assessment makes one thing clear: we are living in increasingly dangerous times. The Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, testified before a U.S. House committee on April 11, 2013 — just four days before the Boston Marathon attack — and gave a sobering summary of the full spectrum of threats facing the United States when he said, “In my almost 50 years in intelligence, I do not recall a period in which we’ve confronted a more diverse array of threats, crises, and challenges around the world.” These threats range from seemingly mundane issues like budget fights to militant Islamist groups, cyber attacks and rogue nations building weapons of mass destruction. Here’s a summary of Clapper’s assessment of the leading threats to U.S. national security, in no particular order.
5. Sequestration Cuts Threaten Intelligence Operations
Intelligence gathering assets at the Department of Defense, CIA and FBI will lose approximately $4 billion in funding in 2013. According to Clapper, that’s about 7 percent of the national intelligence budget. While $4 billion is not a lot of money in a federal budget that exceeds $3.8 trillion for the fiscal year, the cuts are structured in such a way that they could eventually have a negative impact on intelligence operations. Some of the specific programs that could be degraded include human intelligence activities as well as various electronic means such as satellite imagery and phone and email intercepts. Many government jobs have been threatened due to sequestration and the FBI faces thousands of furloughs that could hurt its counterintelligence and counterterrorism mission.
4. Cyber Attacks Are an Evolving Threat
Former national security official Richard Clarke’s 2012 book, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, outlined America’s growing vulnerability to cyber attacks. Modern infrastructure, from transportation systems to electrical grids to financial institutions relies on computer networks to function. As this reliance grows, so does the risk of disruption. Lone hackers can be annoying and cause considerable problems, but coordinated cyber attacks launched by nations or terrorist groups could cause real trouble affecting everything from water supplies to the stock markets and missile defense systems. Many analysts believe nations will increasingly use cyber attacks or “soft war” as the opening salvo in future wars to degrade an enemy’s ability to respond to a subsequent conventional military attack. Clapper says that budget cuts will force the U.S. intelligence community to cut ties with thousands of private contractors currently working to beef up the country’s cyber defenses. In addition, critical research in this field will be scaled back.
3. The Syrian Civil War Presents Many Challenges
More than 70,000 people have been killed in two years of violence in Syria as the brutal Assad regime attempts to defeat a growing insurgency. It is difficult for intelligence agencies monitoring the conflict to know exactly who makes up the patchwork of competing insurgent groups. However, it is known that a sizable portion, even a majority by some accounts, of the fighters are members of militant Islamist groups such as the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front. Although the Syrian civil war is a regional problem in the short term, the possibility the country could be overrun by terrorist groups makes it an international security problem America must confront. The U.S. has provided non-lethal aid such as radios and food to some of the insurgent groups, and U.S. personnel have also been training Syrian insurgents in neighboring Jordan. The alleged use of sarin nerve gas by the Syrian regime against insurgents and civilians has put increased pressure on the international community to intervene with air power and special operations forces as was done in Libya. The situation continues to evolve by the day: on May 1, several national media outlets reported the Obama administration is considering sending lethal weapons to the Syrian opposition, ratcheting up American involvement in the conflict.
2. Al-Qaida is Diminished but Other Terrorists Remain a Danger
The FBI and CIA investigations into the Boston Marathon attack are still progressing, but it reminds us that militant Islamists can still commit terrorist attacks on American soil. Direct connections to specific overseas terrorist groups are being explored, but at the very least it appears the suspects were steeped in militant Islamist propaganda they sought out on the Internet. And Clapper’s report, issued just four days before the bombing, presciently warned that, “Lone wolves [and] domestic terrorists … are still determined to attack Western interests.”
Al-Qaida is damaged and more diffuse since 9/11, but continues to have affiliations and connections with like-minded terrorist groups operating in countries such as Pakistan, Mali, Chechnya and the Philippines. According to Clapper, “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” to threaten U.S. interests.
1. Nuclear Threats from North Korea and Iran are Real
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union’s military machine almost a generation ago, most Americans have taken for granted that the country is safe from nuclear attack. This point of view is changing as the rogue states of North Korea and Iran continue their nuclear weapon programs. Both are members of the original Axis of Evil as declared by President Bush in 2002, and have lived up to this billing with reckless and dangerous behavior over the past decade; Iranian support for insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq makes Iran responsible for killing thousands of Americans, Afghanis and Iraqis. Clapper says the country’s continuing efforts in uranium enrichment and ballistic missile development, “strengthen our assessment that Tehran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons.” A nuclear-armed Iran with ballistic missiles to deliver them would pose a tremendous threat to security in the Middle East and in particular could threaten Israel’s existence.
North Korea has conducted at least three underground nuclear tests and has an extensive ballistic missile program. There are widely differing reports from Washington regarding North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear device via a ballistic missile, but the country’s ongoing efforts in that area, along with what Clapper called, “extremely belligerent, aggressive public rhetoric” from Korean leader Kim Jong Un make the situation unstable.