What Clapper doesn’t know keeps him up at night

DNI James Clapper discusses the daily brief with President Barack Obama as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon follows the discussion. (White House Photo/Peter Souza)
What threats worry Clapper

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 9:19 am

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Before dawn on most days, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. arrives at his office in the Liberty Crossing complex in Tysons Corner and heads straight for the gym.

Those days, which lately have been jam-packed with a growing slate of complex, pre-existing and new threats, have infringed upon his nights and cut into his sleep.

After a vigorous exercise session, Clapper, 71, heads up to his spacious, light- filled office to a desk full of reminders that the U.S. is facing an unprecedented period of danger.

“What keeps me awake at night are the things I don’t know about,” Clapper says.

His concern about the unknown revolves around the endless menu of evolving modern threats he believes were unleashed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but did not emerge until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The threats, some of which are transnational and others that are country specific, began to slowly acquire attack capabilities that make them direct threats to the U.S. today.

“That process has been going on since the early ’90s,” Clapper says. “Obviously the trauma of 9/11 brought that into very clear relief for all of us. That probably is a symbolic milestone that characterizes this new troubled world we live in.”

And, now a previously unheard of common denominator is starting to dominate the publicly available threat information the Intelligence Community (IC) is grappling with.

Clapper and other key IC figures are beginning to notice that one of the most treacherous and potential threats facing the U.S. is the speed at which world events are taking place.

The combination of rapidly unfolding global events, the quick rise of new threats and daily propagation of cyber-technology to anyone who wants it is the driving feature behind Clapper’s shortened sleep-cycle.

“What we have seen happening around the world has shown us that we’re going to see an accelerated pace (of major global events),” says Gen. Ron Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Burgess says the impact of global economic uncertainty, the emergence of highly sophisticated threats and geopolitical realignment that typically has unfolded over decades will roll out much more quickly.

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of both the National Security Agency and the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, suggested this week at the American Enterprise Institute that the speed of events, sophisticated cyber-attacks and a slow response could result in a devastating attack that could bring any nation to its knees.

Cyber-attacks as they are now known would pale by comparison.

“What I am concerned about is when these (cyber-attacks) turn from disruptive to destructive attacks, and I think those are coming,” Alexander said.

He warned of attacks from five possible threat groups: nation states, cyber- criminals, hackers, hacktivists and terrorists.

He said when the destructive attacks do come, “you lose” … and projects the “financial sector or the power grid or your (company’s) systems’ capabilities” to be among the losses.

And among the most difficult part of the problem, Alexander said, is not knowing “who is attacking your systems.”

While troubling, cyber, pace of change and the unknown are not the only issues Clapper wrestles with.

“Obviously terrorism continues to be a major concern, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the nightmare scenario would be the nexus of the two. Cyber is a potentially huge threat to this country, and we have all kinds of counterintelligence issues.”

“Geographically focused concerns” dominate his 24-hour schedule, and no single issue is ranked as the “biggest threat.”

“Look at potential adversaries, be they China and Russia, and not-so-potential adversaries in Iran and North Korea. [Given] the variety, the scope and the magnitude of these threats, I don’t know that we have the luxury to pick one and only focus on that one since we have to focus on all of them.”

The full-blown, classified list is reserved for the presidential daily briefing, which Clapper and Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Intelligence Integration Robert Cardillo deliver to President Barack Obama about mid-morning.

Clapper, who will mark 50 years as a member of the U.S. community in 2013, says he’s had “a lot of jobs in intelligence and I’ve never taken on anything as hard as this.”

Clapper joked about a conversation with Obama a few years ago.

“{He} rolled me out in the Rose Garden in June of ’10, and he said to my grandkids, ‘I want to thank your grandfather for taking on the second most thankless job in this town.’ I have often, many times had occasion to reflect on that comment.”

While the IC, by all accounts, appears to be out in front of the threats facing the U.S., Clapper says the challenge will not get any easier.

“I hark back to the Halcyon Days of the Cold War, where we had one major adversary and all of the threats were subsumed by that one adversary. We’re now in an era like I’ve never seen before.

“In my experience, I don’t recall a more diverse set of threats than those that we have today.”

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