The Associated Press

What Keeps the Intelligence Community Up at Night?

These are the threats that top the list.

The Associated Press

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.

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On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about “Current and Future Worldwide Threats.” Such testimony on Capitol Hill is always interesting.

While surely many important details are reserved for the classified versions of these briefings to the members of the committee and their staffs, they do allow the interested public to see what issues keep members of the intelligence community up at night. Of course, cynics are likely to see such intelligence reportage as always driven by both exogenous (e.g., threats) and endogenous factors (e.g., bureaucratic inertia and self-perpetuation). Still, both perspectives offer useful insights.

Clapper’s perspective is the wider purview of the two because he sits atop the bureaucratic hierarchy of the American intelligence community, whereas Flynn’s perspective is more narrowly focused on military factors. Both men had a good deal of overlap in terms of their concerns about cyber, counterintelligence, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and proliferation, counterspace threats (i.e., the ability to knock out critical spaced-based enablers such as communications and intelligence satellites), and each also covered regional concerns. Clapper added apprehensions about transnational organized crime, worrying economic trends, natural resource trepidations, potential health risks and fears of mass atrocities. (Flynn added in a section on the security situation in Afghanistan and threat trends there.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Clapper noted that in the cyber realm there were concerns about state (China, Russia, North Korea and Iran) and non-state actors (terrorists and transnational criminals) posing both economic and physical risks. Of particular interest were his remarks about the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure, “smart” appliances (“the Internet of things”), virtual currencies (e.g., Bitcoin) and technological innovations such as 3D printing. On the last example he stated the possibility that:

Emerging technologies, such as three-dimensional printing, have uncertain economic and social impacts and can revolutionize the manufacturing sector by drastically reducing the costs of research, development, and prototyping. Similarly, they might also revolutionize aspects of underground criminal activity.


His comments on health security risks were also troubling. His testimony stated that such threats:

arise unpredictably from at least five sources: the emergence and spread of new or reemerging microbes; the globalization of travel and the food supply; the rise of drug-resistant pathogens; the acceleration of biological science capabilities and the risk that these capabilities might cause inadvertent or intentional release of pathogens; and adversaries’ acquisition, development, and use of weaponized agents. Infectious diseases, whether naturally caused, intentionally produced, or accidentally released, are still among the foremost health security threats. A more crowded and interconnected world is increasing the opportunities for human, animal, or zoonotic diseases to emerge and spread globally. Antibiotic drug resistance is an increasing threat to global health security. Seventy percent of known bacteria have now acquired resistance to at least one antibiotic, threatening a return to the pre-antibiotic era.


[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

Flynn’s testimony described the low-end/high-end nature of the threat environment posed by both state and non-state adversaries and challengers. He noted the challenges of the proliferation of capabilities such as the Russian-made Club-K cruise missiles (“a family of weapons deployed inside standardized commercial shipping containers similar to those found on merchant vessels, freight rail trains and road vehicles”) and the continuing practice of adversaries, both real and potential, in developing underground facilities (“UGFs”) to harden and protect targets from precision strikes.

Also troubling were his comments about the Snowden leaks and other counterintelligence trends. He testified:

An emerging threat that concerns the department involves the potential for foreign intelligence entities to compromise critical supply chains or corrupt key components bound for vital warfighting systems. Additionally, a few transnational terrorist groups have developed effective intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities-we have seen this manifest in Iraq and Afghanistan, and terrorist groups are now using and sharing the knowledge and experience they gained in those conflicts.


Such reports are always troubling because for a global power with global responsibilities (wanted or unwanted, depending on one’s point of view) such as the United States they illustrate that the array of threats are remarkably broad and budgetary realities always drive one to balance risks because there is never enough time or money to counter all avenues of potential threats.

The intelligence community provides a useful screen to analyze, (dis)aggregate and filter information and trends, but there will always be the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” that will produce surprises. Reading such reports, however, at least helps one to see a good portion of what decision-makers in the intelligence community are thinking about and to allow one to think what about other possibilities are potentially lurking out there.