Cyber Tops Intel Community’s 2013 Global Threat Assessment
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 15, 2013 National security threats are more diverse, interconnected and viral than at any time in history, the director of national intelligence said last week in a statement for the record delivered to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“This year, in content and organization, this statement illustrates how quickly and radically the world and our threat environments are changing,” James R. Clapper said in the statement’s introduction.
At the top of the U.S. intelligence community’s 2013 assessment of global threats is cyber, followed by terrorism and transnational organized crime, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, counterintelligence and space activities, insecurity and competition for natural resources, health and pandemic threats, and mass atrocities.
“This environment is demanding reevaluations of the way we do business, expanding our analytic envelope and altering the vocabulary of intelligence,” Clapper said in his statement.
The 30-page statement, based on information complete as of March 7, also lists threats in terms of regions such as the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, East and South Asia, Russia and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe.
As the top-listed global threat, cyber is discussed in terms of increasing risk to U.S. critical infrastructure, the erosion of U.S. economic and national security, information control and Internet governance, and other areas.
“We judge that there is a remote chance of a major cyberattack against U.S. critical infrastructure systems during the next two years that would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services such as a regional power outage,” Clapper stated.
The technical expertise and operational sophistication needed for such an attack is out of reach for most actors, he added, and “advanced cyber actors like Russia and China are unlikely to launch such a devastating attack against the United States outside of a military conflict or crisis that they believe threatens their vital interests.”
But, he stated, isolated state or nonstate actors might deploy less sophisticated cyberattacks as a form of retaliation or provocation.
In terms of eroding U.S. economic and national security, the director said in his statement: “We assess that highly networked business practices and information technology are providing opportunities for foreign intelligence and security services, trusted insiders, hackers and others to target and collect sensitive U.S. national security and economic data.”
Such activities are allowing adversaries to close the technological gap between the U.S. military and their own, he added, slowly neutralizing a key U.S. advantage internationally.
In the area of online information control, he said, some countries, including Russia, China and Iran, focus on cyber influence and the risk that Internet content might contribute to political instability. The U.S. focus is on cyber security and the risks to network and system reliability and integrity.
This fundamental difference in defining cyber threats was a core part of discussions as countries negotiated a global telecommunications treaty in Dubai in December, Clapper said.
“The contentious new text that resulted led many countries, including the United States, not to sign the treaty because of its language on network security, spam control and expansion of the U.N.’s role in Internet governance,” the director added.
Negotiations showed that such disagreements will be long-running challenges in bilateral and multilateral engagements, he said.
“We track cyber developments among nonstate actors, including terrorist groups, hacktivists and cyber criminals,” Clapper noted, adding, “We have seen indications that some terrorist organizations have heightened interest in developing offensive cyber capabilities, but they will probably be constrained by inherent resource and organizational limitations and competing priorities.”
In Clapper’s statement to Congress, he said terrorism is divided into subcategories that include the evolving homeland threat landscape, the global jihadist threat overseas and its affiliates, allies and sympathizers in Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Terrorist threats, the director observed, are in transition as the global jihadist movement becomes increasingly decentralized.
“The Arab Spring has generated a spike in threats to U.S. interests in the region that likely will endure until political upheaval stabilizes and security forces regain their capabilities,” Clapper said.
The nation also faces uncertainty about potential threats from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, which see the United States and Israel as their principal enemies.
For al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, attacks on U.S. soil will remain part of its transnational strategy and the group continues to adjust its tactics, techniques and procedures for targeting the West, Clapper said.
The intelligence community assesses that al-Qaida-inspired homegrown violent extremists will continue to be involved in fewer than 10 domestic plots per year and will be motivated by global jihadist propaganda to engage in violent action, he added.
For core al-Qaida, the director said, “senior personnel losses in 2012, amplifying losses and setbacks since 2008, have degraded that organization to a point that the group is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West … [but] its leaders will not abandon the aspiration to attack inside the United States.”
Iran, North Korea and Syria figure prominently in the statement’s discussion of weapons of mass destruction.
“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,” Clapper said.
“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” he added.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia, a region with some of the world’s largest populations, militaries and economies, the director said.
“North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and its assistance to Syria’s construction of a nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, illustrate the reach of its proliferation activities,” Clapper said.
“… Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or allies to preserve the Kim [Jong Un] regime,” he added, “we do not know what would constitute, from the North’s perspective, crossing that threshold.”
Syria has an active chemical warfare program and maintains a stockpile of sulfur mustard, sarin and the nerve agent VX. The intelligence community assesses that Syria has a stockpile of missiles, aerial bombs and possibly artillery rockets that can be used to deliver these agents, the director said.
“Syria’s overall CW program is large, complex and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage, production and preparation,” Clapper said.
“This advanced CW program has the potential to inflict mass casualties,” he added, “and we assess that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use CW against the Syrian people.”
Some elements of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production, the director said.
Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, he added, but it has conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery.
In this threat environment, Clapper said, “… The intelligence community must continue to promote collaboration among experts in every field, from the political and social sciences to natural sciences, medicine, military issues and space.”
He added: “Collectors and analysts need vision across disciplines to understand how and why developments -- and both state and unaffiliated actors -- can spark sudden changes with international implications.”