DNI's 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment

By Jack Goldsmith
Friday, February 27, 2015, 9:14 AM

I highly recommend that Lawfare readers peruse the annual the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, as well as DNI Clapper’s opening statement before the SASC yesterday.  I read both quickly (though I did not watch the hearing).  Both seem less watered-down than usual.  Some highlights:

“Cyber” is at the top of the (implicit) hierarchy of global threats.   Cyber threats are “increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact.”  So too are the “ranges of cyber threat actors, methods of attack, targeted systems, and victims.”   The report suggests that we will see “more cyber operations that will change or manipulate electronic information in order to compromise its integrity (i.e. accuracy and reliability) instead of deleting it or disrupting access to it.”  However, “the likelihood of a catastrophic attack from any particular actor is remote at this time.”  Clapper says that the Russian cyber threat “is more severe than we’ve previously assessed.”  And the Threat Assessment brags that “[a]lthough cyber operators can infiltrate or disrupt targeted ICT networks, most can no longer assume that their activities will remain undetected” because “[g]overnmental and private sector security professionals have made significant advances in detecting and attributing cyber intrusions.”  It also names names – for example, attributing the Las Vegas attack last year to Iran, and the Sony attack to North Korea.  The deterrence aims of these statements are obvious.  But the Report weakens the effect of the statements when it later acknowledges that “[d]istinguishing between state and non-state actors within the same country is often difficult—especially when those varied actors actively collaborate, tacitly cooperate, condone criminal activity that only harms foreign victims, or utilize similar cyber tools.”

Terrorism is third on the list of threats, after counterintelligence.  Not a whole lot of news on this front that I can see.  Except perhaps this: Clapper in his statement says in the first nine months of 2014, there were 13,000 terrorist attacks around the world which killed 31,000 people, and adds that when all of the data is in, 2014 “will have been the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.”  As for the Islamic State’s threat to the homeland, the report says that “[i]f ISIL were to substantially increase the priority it places on attacking the West rather than fighting to maintain and expand territorial control, then the group’s access to radicalized Westerners who have fought in Syria and Iraq would provide a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States and other Western countries.”  It adds: “Since the conflict began in 2011, more than 20,000 foreign fighters—at least 3,400 of whom are Westerners—have gone to Syria from more than 90 countries.”

WMD and proliferation are next in line.   The report says that “Iran does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue.”  It adds that “Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them,” and adds that “Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).”  Clapper says in his statement that Iran’s Supreme Leader “wants sanctions relief, while at the same time preserving his options on nuclear capabilities.”  On North Korea, the DNI says that its “nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia,” that it has “expanded the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces,” and that it continues to export ballistic missile and related technology.  The Report also describes China’s expanding nuclear forces and Russia’s new intermediate-range cruise missile (which the USG says violates the INF Treaty).

The Report also discusses space and counterspace, transnational crime, economics and natural resources, human security (infectious diseases, extreme weather, political instability, etc.), and then has a discussion of regional threats.