Syria has become a hotbed for al Qaeda training, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will hinge on the country’s internal politics, post-Arab Spring violence is likely to grow over the coming year, and the threat of a massive cyber attack on American interests is increasing.
Those were a few key points U.S. intelligence community leaders highlighted Wednesday in the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Yet, the most revealing difference between this and past years’ assessments centered on something else entirely: leaks.
For the first time, the threat of sensitive intelligence leaks — notably those made over the past six months by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — has been elevated to a level of “critical,” and listed above both terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation.
Mr. Snowden and the media outlets that have published his accounts of NSA snooping are not mentioned by name. But the survey states outright that “the unauthorized disclosure of this information to state adversaries, nonstate activists or other entities will continue to pose a critical threat.”
Appearing before the Senate panel were Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James B. Comey, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen.
Instability in the wake of Syria’s civil war has left parts of the country “a significant location for independent or al Qaeda-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom might conduct external attacks,” according to the assessment, a joint analysis by the 16 agencies composing the intelligence community.
The conclusion was cited by some lawmakers, who cautioned against prematurely celebrating progress made against al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Senior Obama administration officials, including the president himself, often note that the terrorist network’s original core in the region is nearing defeat.
But committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said she was “concerned that this success has led to a popular misconception that the threat has diminished.”
“It has not,” said Mrs. Feinstein. “While the threat emanating from Pakistan’s tribal areas has diminished due to persistent counterterrorism operations, the threat from other areas has increased.”
Intelligence community leaders also warned about instability in the wider Middle East.
“Intensifying” hostility in Syria between Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects is “spilling into neighboring countries,” the Worldwide Threat Assessment states.
“In the three years since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, a few states have made halting progress in their transitions away from authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, political uncertainty and violence will probably increase across the region in 2014 as the toppling of leaders and weakening of regimes has unleashed ethnic and sectarian rivalries that are propagating destabilizing violence.”
Intelligence community leaders pointed to cyberthreats posed to American financial and other systems by a host of players, including both terrorist groups and hostile foreign governments, in particular Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
“We assess that the likelihood of a destructive attack that deletes information or renders systems inoperable will increase as malware and attack tradecraft proliferate,” the threat assessment states.
Addressing Mr. Snowden’s revelations, Mr. Comey said that the “storm around surveillance and the leaks” has made law enforcement’s response to cyberthreats more complicated, especially in connection with financial fraud and theft.
But he added that “people need to realize that there is threat of fraud and theft because we’ve connected our entire lives to the Internet. … Our law enforcement authorities have to be able to respond robustly.”
Added Mr. Clapper, “We’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources,” saying that terrorists and others “are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods and tradecraft, and the insights that they are gaining are making our job much, much harder.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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