On Worldwide Threats

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The Islamic State (ISIS) is the “preeminent global” threat and remains determined to execute direct attacks against the U.S. homeland, the top U.S. intelligence official told Senators at the annual Worldwide Threats hearings on Tuesday.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said ISIS “leaders are determined to strike the U.S. homeland, beyond inspiring homegrown extremist attacks,” but he added that homegrown militants “will probably continue to pose the most significant Sunni terrorist threat to the U.S.”    The attacks last year in Chattanooga and San Bernardino “might motivate others to replicate opportunistic attacks with little or no warning, diminishing our ability to detect terrorist operational planning and readiness,” Clapper said in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Senate Intelligence Committees.

The DNI also said ISIS was “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants” flowing into Europe from Syria and elsewhere “to insert operatives into the flow.”  Clapper referred to ISIS’ “sophisticated attack tactics and tradecraft” and pointed to the scores of attacks directed by ISIS outside of its base in Syria and Iraq.  

Other threats facing the United States—what Clapper called the “litany of doom”—included cyber attacks perpetuated by China and Russia; North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program; and Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The Cipher Brief asked CIA’s former Acting Director and Cipher Network member John McLaughlin to give us some insights into how the super secret spy agencies prepare for public Congressional testimony.

The Cipher Brief: The testimony on Tuesday focused on the threats from homegrown terrorists and the worrisome nature of North Korea’s recent display of its potential to deliver a nuclear-armed missile.  Is there anything you would have added or emphasized differently in Tuesday’s open sessions?

John McLaughlin: Not really.  The testimony does strike me as slightly more pointed and specific this year.  And to some degree, the basic subjects are predictable.  It would be hard, as this year’s statement shows, for the DNI not to talk about homegrown terrorism, cyber, Russia, China, Iran and Syria.  What matters more is what he or she says and in what priority.  If I was straining to add something that I did not pick up in a quick read, it might be the possibility that ISIS, with its record of delivering surprises, could get its hands on unconventional weapons.  But, at the same time, you try not to be overly alarmist or to fear monger in this testimony, so some care has to be taken to avoid making it a laundry list of everything that could imaginably occur.     

TCB: Given that the intelligence world is the world of secrets, why is it important that the intelligence chiefs provide unclassified testimonies before the Congress?

JM: We often debated the merits of this in exactly those terms.  In the end, I tip toward endorsing this kind of testimony.  It is one of the few times when the American public can get some sense of what occurs in this arcane field.  To my knowledge, no other major country does anything like this, in anything like this level of detail, and with such broad access.  It is also one of the few times when a broad cross-section of Congress engages on intelligence issues on the basis of a testimony that has nothing to do with politics or policy – particularly important in these very partisan times.  Congressional oversight is one of the few ways in which intelligence is connected to the American people – another potential benefit of such hearings.  

TCB: When you were at CIA, how did you decide the themes and content for your testimony?

JM: In my experience, this was a serious exercise.  But the approach is pretty straightforward.  You quite literally ask yourself:  what are the main threats to the security of the United States and in what order of priority.  Among other things, this can be a useful vehicle for warning of dangers, and given the seriousness with which the testimony is constructed, it’s fair to look back when surprises occur and ask whether the events in question were flagged.

TCB: Were you ever worried that we were providing adversaries an advantage with the open testimony?

JM: To be frank, yes.  There is a delicate balance to be struck between saying enough to convey your level of concern and saying so much that you give adversaries a road map to what you know and are trying to collect through intelligence means.  And of course, you must stick to issues and stay away from any discussion of intelligence sources and methods.  So the question is: do the potential benefits outweigh the drawbacks of the exercise?  In the open and free democracy in which we live, I’d say the answer is yes.  At the end of the day, the American people make the decisions – as we can see clearly in the current primary season – and this is one of the few ways they can decide what they think of the intelligence capability they pay for.

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