By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2014 – Global threats most critical to U.S. national security include Syria’s civil war and its spillover, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and deep cuts to America’s defense budget, two top intelligence leaders told a Senate panel here this morning.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the contents of the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, released Jan. 29 and based on information available as of Jan. 15.
“Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence,” Clapper said, “I've not experienced a time when we've been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”
Clapper’s list of threats included “the scourge and diversification of terrorism, loosely connected and globally dispersed, … as exemplified by the Boston Marathon bombing and by the sectarian war in Syria [and] its attraction as a growing center of radical extremism and the potential threat this poses to the homeland.”
Despite different missions and audiences, Clapper and Flynn described similar priorities, among them widespread dangers inherent in Syria’s sectarian war, harm to the intelligence community and the nation of Edward Snowden’s unauthorized release last year of classified National Security Agency documents, and the effect on the intelligence community and military services of deep budget cuts.
In Syria, Clapper said, the insurgency’s strength is an estimated 75,000 to 115,000, organized into more than 1,500 groups of widely varied political leanings.
“Three of the most effective are the Al-Nusrah Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, or ISIL as it's known, whose numbers total more than 20,000,” the director of national intelligence added.
At least 7,500 foreign fighters from 50 countries have gravitated to Syria, he said, among them a small group of Afghanistan-Pakistan al-Qaida veterans “who have aspirations for external attack in Europe if not the homeland itself,” Clapper said.
Other related threats include the spillover of the Syrian conflict into neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, he added, and the destabilizing flood of nearly 2.5 million refugees into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
For DIA, the situation in Syria ties into one of three global threats that are of special concern to the agency, Flynn said:
-- The threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of nonstate actors and proliferation of the weapons to other state actors;
-- The emergence of foreign militaries with capabilities approaching those of the United States and its allies; and
-- Increasing tensions in the Pacific.
“The current instability in Syria presents a perfect opportunity for al-Qaida and associated groups to acquire these weapons or their components,” he added.
While the Bashar al-Assad regime controls Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapon materials, moving the materials for disposal or other reasons drastically increases the risk of such components falling into the wrong hands, Flynn explained.
“There is also the very real possibility that extremists in the Syrian opposition could overrun and exploit chemical and biological weapons storage facilities before all the materials are removed,” the general said.
Outside Syria, Flynn added, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies is an ongoing challenge.
On DIA’s other priorities, Flynn said the armed forces of China and Russia are fielding new weapon systems that challenge the United States’ conventional military superiority, and both are restructuring their militaries and improving command and control to better operate in an information-dominated combat environment.
These efforts are a marked departure for both countries, the general added, “and although it will take time for each to integrate these new capabilities and force structures into their militaries, we cannot afford to ignore these developments.”
On the issue of increasing tensions in the Pacific region, Flynn called Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea highly unpredictable and possibly the region’s most destabilizing force.
“The disputed areas in the East and South China Seas also remain important flash points [and] the announcement in November that the Chinese are establishing an air identification zone over portions of the East China Sea raised regional tensions, particularly with Japan,” Flynn said.
Such tensions, he added, “raise the prospect for further incidents that could lead to an escalation involving military force.”
On the topic of last year’s theft and release of National Security Agency intelligence documents by former contractor Edward Snowden, Clapper called the crime potentially the most damaging in U.S. history.
Clapper, as the nation’s senior intelligence officer, noted the profound damage the disclosures have caused and continue to cause.
“The nation is less safe and its people less secure. What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs,” Clapper said, noting that the nation has lost critical intelligence sources.
Clapper said terrorists and other adversaries are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods and tradecraft.
“The insights they're gaining are making our job in the intelligence community much harder, and this includes putting the lives of members or assets of the intelligence community at risk as well as those of our armed forces, diplomats and citizens.”
“We're beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries, particularly terrorists,” he said.
Clapper and Flynn called on Snowden and his accomplices to return the rest of the stolen documents to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.
“In my professional military judgment, Mr. Snowden's disclosures have done grave damage to the Department of Defense and go far beyond the act of a so-called whistleblower,” Flynn said.
“I have no doubt that he has placed the men and women of our armed services at risk,” the general added, “and that his disclosures will cost lives on our future battlefields.”
Clapper told the Senate panel that substantial U.S. budget reductions will amplify the impact of losses caused by Snowden’s disclosures. “The intelligence community is going to have less capacity to protect our nation and its allies than we've had in the past,” he said, adding, “We're thus faced collectively … with the inescapable imperative to accept more risk.”
Clapper called it “a plain hard fact and a circumstance that the community must and will manage, together with [Congress] and those whom we support in the executive branch.”
Flynn said that though there is increasing pressure to reduce defense spending, “I would note that the demands on the United States intelligence system have skyrocketed in recent years, and these demands are only expected to increase in the years to come.”
Such reductions must occur, he added, “and we will have to accept greater risk … [but] defense intelligence must continue to be able to provide timely and actionable intelligence across the entire threat spectrum.
The general said that together, his agency and Congress must “address the very delicate balance between critical defense needs and our nation's long-term fiscal health.”