Initial Thoughts on the ODNI’s Worldwide Threat Assessment

on March 9 | in Congress, Intelligence Reform, ODNI, Oversight

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The Director of National Intelligence last week unveiled the 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community a document that discusses all the threats and national security challenges facing the U.S. today.

Although DNI Clapper always takes pains to note that he’s not ranking these challenges, this document has, as Jack Goldsmith writes in Lawfare Blog, an “implicit hierarchy”—terrorism is mentioned higher up in the Assessment than, say, problems in Moldova.

Like last year, cyber threats tops the list, followed by counterintelligence challenges. Terrorism is #3, while WMD Proliferation rounds out the top four. There is, of course, a large section devoted to all the ills of the world, but it’s in the back half of the document.

There are a lot of interesting nuggets of information here, more so if you read the document line by line. Here are several points that have initially caught my eye:

There probably won’t be a “Cyber 9/11.” Despite the rhetoric from outsiders and folks within the IC, Clapper assesses it’ll be smaller-scale events that will give us headaches:

“Rather than a “Cyber Armageddon” scenario that debilitates the entire US infrastructure, we envision something different. We foresee an ongoing series of low-to-moderate level cyber attacks from a variety of sources over time, which will impose cumulative costs on US economic competitiveness and national security.”

Russia & China remain America’s nation-state adversaries in almost every respect. This is a no-brainer, as Russia and China figure prominently in cyber, counterintelligence and WMD proliferation challenges. They are also threats in space. Obviously, Washington’s problems with Beijing and Moscow aren’t going away anytime soon.

The Iranians can build a nuclear weapon if they truly want to, no matter what the U.S. (or, say, the Israelis) do. The Assessment notes:

 “We also continue to assess that Iran does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue.”

Yet the IC’s still assesses Tehran has not decided if it wants to actually build the weapons

“We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

or the missiles required to deliver them.

“We judge that Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.”

Our decade-plus effort to crush al Qaeda Core in Afghanistan/Pakistan does not seem to have made a tangible difference in combating global terrorism. For counterterrorism analysts, this is a truly unkind cut. The Assessment states:

“Sunni violent extremists are gaining momentum and the number of Sunni violent extremist groups, members, and safe havens is greater than at any other point in history.”

Ukraine isn’t really a huge priority. Despite the press interest in the conflict and some Members of Congress’ desire to provide weaponry to Kiev, the Assessment discusses this issue on page 17, basically making it a tertiary issue for the IC.

There are more mass atrocities in the years ahead. Buried in the document is this depressing sentence:

“Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will probably diminish in 2015 owing to reductions in government budgets and spending.”

An implicit note to Congress: it’s time to allocate more funding to stop global mass atrocities.

Photo: DNI Clapper and CIA Director Brennan at the 2013 Worldwide Threat Briefing (ODNI)

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