Growing threats and budget cuts challenge U.S. intelligence

DIA Director Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess reviewing material with an aide. (Courtesy DIA)

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON — Evolving transnational terrorism, sophisticated cyber attacks, a hasty Chinese military build-up, Iranian assassination plots and an unstable, nuclear North Korea top the list of threats the U.S. is facing, according to the nation’s top military intelligence official.

“In the past, we might have been able to focus on a common threat during the Cold War. Now we see that (threat) proliferating more globally. So you no longer have the luxury to focus on just one target. We now have multiple ones that we have to be cognizant of,” said Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Seated at a large table in his Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling office, overlooking the Potomac River, Reagan National Airport and the southern gateway to Washington, Burgess stated resolutely those are just some of the issues that keep him up at night.

The collection of threats, converging on DIA as massive budget cuts bear down on the Pentagon, complicate Burgess’ mission.

“What it’s forced me to do as an agency head is determine what is the core missions that I am required to do. We had some things that happened that were not in our core competencies,” he says.

“If we’re going to go down a path where we’re required to look at budget constraints, then I’m going to take it back to what is my core mission.”

Burgess says the bottom line of that mission is “to prevent strategic surprise” for the president, policymakers, the military and the balance of the intelligence community.

Many of those possible surprises lie in places where the U.S. thought the threat had been eliminated: places like Russia.

“I wouldn’t take Russia off the list. When you’re sitting there with as many nuclear missiles as that country has, it’s always somebody I have to keep an eye on as an intelligence person,” Burgess says.

More troubling than Russia’s nuclear arsenal is its cyber espionage efforts. A new report from National Counter Intelligence Executive Robert Bryant says, “Russia’s intelligence services are conducting a range of activities to collect economic information and technology from U.S. targets.”

It is the combination of Russian espionage and its nukes that worries many in the intelligence community.

China also dominates the intelligence community’s threat matrix with multiple threats. In addition to rapidly building up its military capabilities, China is making a play for raw materials around the world. “That is going to cause them to come into markets that others have had for a while,” Burgess says.

According to a report from the UCLA Asian-American Study Center, “As China continues to grow, its demand for energy and raw materials has sent it scouring the globe for resources and driving up the price of everything from oil to minerals. At the same time, China’s growing investment in Africa and its establishment of trade with countries deemed unfriendly by the United States has also become a source of concern to the U.S.”

The principle U.S. concern about China today is longstanding worries about industrial espionage. The NCIX report says, “Chinese actors are the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage. U.S. private sector firms and cyber security specialists have reported an onslaught of computer network intrusions that have originated in China, but the IC (intelligence community) cannot confirm who was responsible.”

One of the most insidious potential threats facing the U.S. is the pace at which the world is moving, Burgess says.

“What we have seen happening around the world has shown us that we’re going to see an accelerated pace (of major global events),” he says.

The DIA recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and Burgess recognizes, “What we saw from our first 50 years of (DIA) history to what we are going to see in the future worldwide, we as an intelligence community are going to need to adapt to that continuing pace of change. And we’re going to have to do that in a more fiscally constrained environment.”

Above and to the right, listen to Lt. Gen. Burgess discuss the threats facing America and the future of intelligence with WTOP’s J.J. Green.

Follow J.J. and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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