National Security Strategy

2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, February 12, 2016, 2:53 PM

On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community to Congress. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee with DIA Director Vincent Stewart, and then later in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, NSA Director Michael Rogers, and DIA Director Stewart, Clapper outlined the top global threats the United States faces today. As Foreign Policy described the event: “U.S. spy chiefs think the world is pretty much going to hell.”

At least we were warned.

In his testimony, DNI Clapper referenced “unpredictable instability” as the new normal throughout the world, and noted that it will likely be the norm for the foreseeable future.

Clapper deemed cyber threats as the top global threat facing the United States, stating that the “innovation and increased reliance on information technology in the next few years on both our society’s way of life in general and how we in the Intelligence Community specifically perform our mission will probably be far greater in scope and impact than ever.” Although these developments may very well pose challenges to U.S. cyber defenses, they will also create new opportunities for the United States’ own intelligence collectors. Clapper also mentioned the risks and benefits of the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Foreign Data Science, and Augmented and Virtual Realities. Director Clapper also flagged the leading cyber-threat actors the U.S. must monitor, namely Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, but also non-state actors as threat-capacities democratize.

As for terrorism, the Islamic State “has become the preeminent terrorist threat to the United States as a result of its self-described caliphate in Syria and Iraq, its branches and emerging branches in other countries, and its increasing ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world.” In the IC’s assessment, Sunni violent extremism “has more groups, members, and safe havens than at any other point in history.” The report does not forget al Qaeda and its affiliates though, and suggests that these groups too will make gains in 2016. In addition, U.S.-based homegrown violent extremists will continue to pose the most significant threat to the U.S. homeland. The intelligence executives testifying asserted that the Islamic State will also likely attempt to carry out major attacks against the United States this year.

The report then highlights the threat of weapons of mass destruction and proliferation. The United States continues to face a major threat as states like North Korea continue efforts to develop or acquire WMDs, including chemical and biological weapons, while countries like China and Russia seek to upgrade and modernize their arsenals.

The assessment also predicts that the space sector will evolve rapidly in the next few years as more countries begin space exploration, technology becomes more readily available, and private companies demonstrate increased interest. The developments in space exploration and technology will result in rising tensions between the U.S. and China and Russia, as both of those countries develop space-enabled capabilities “placing U.S. satellites at greater risk.”  

The 2016 threat assessment predicts both China and Russia will remain the leading intelligence threats to the country due to their capabilities, intent, and broad operational scope. Their main priority will likely be to penetrate and influence the United States’s decisionmaking apparatus and Intelligence Community. Insiders and non-state entities will continue to be a nuisance as well.

The full report also outlines a number of other threats to the United States, including threats from transnational organized crime, global macroeconomic instability, dwindling commodity prices and diminishing natural resources, as well as mounting environmental risks and diseases.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s hearing is worth watching—highlights include a rather colorful and testy exchange between Senator Ron Wyden and CIA Director John Brennan over allegations of CIA spying on SSCI staffers. You can read the full report below.