The Situation: The threats facing the United States

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, seen here speaking with President Barack Obama, says U.S. officials may not have the luxury of naming one security threat facing the country as the most important. (White House/Peter Souza)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – On the outside looking in to the U.S., all may seem fine. But keeping up appearances is becoming increasingly difficult as threats that emanate inside the country’s borders are compromising the strong physique of the last “superpower.”

On Sept. 12, 2008, the nation’s top intelligence officials were gathered at the DNI Open Source Conference.

“As a career intelligence officer, I’d like to start today with an observation that might surprise some of you who are not: Secret information isn’t always the brass ring,” said then-CIA Director Michael Hayden, one of the featured speakers. “In fact, there’s something special about solving a problem or answering a tough question with information that others are dumb enough to leave out in the open.”

Hayden’s reference to smart people connecting dots that are invisible to most has come back to haunt the country, thanks to WikiLeaks.

But even as millions of classified documents have been dumped out of their confidential binders onto the world stage for anyone who wishes to see them, unauthorized leaks of classified information are causing added strains.

“The leaking, in my view, is egregious,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says. His anger about it extends well beyond the fact that some of the nation’s most sensitive and vital intelligence has been exposed.

In fact, he’s furious that the intelligence community is being blamed for it.

“It’s an issue of great concern. It does great harm to intelligence operations. It compromises tradecraft and it endangers relations with foreign partners,” an infuriated Clapper says.

The intelligence community recently has suffered harsh condemnation because of leaks about a terrorist kill list that President Barack Obama allegedly maintains and classified details about Israeli efforts to shut down Iranian nuclear facilities.

But Clapper points out that others outside of the official intelligence world can obtain the same information.

“There are many others who know about these things beside those that are formally a part of the intelligence community,” Clapper says. “The secrets that are generated within the intelligence community don’t necessarily stay within the intelligence community. There are many others who are exposed to those same secrets.”

Maintaining secrets was a key priority for Justin Jackson for 26 years as an undercover officer for the CIA, and he’s keenly aware of the challenges ahead.

“Terrorism is probably the most ubiquitous threat. But there are so many threats – proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countries that engage in espionage against the United States,” Jackson says.

And when his cover was lifted recently, Jackson expressed deep concern about the connected world we live in now.

“One of the threats that really concerns me is the cyberthreats. Those are the countries and the non-state actors that are trying to penetrate our information technology systems,” he says.

But beyond the new generation of threats, the old ones remain. See the chart below:

Then and Now: Threats to the U.S. 2008-2012
CIA director Michael Hayden spoke to WTOP several times between 2006 and 2009. Here are the threats as he viewed them at that time. The CIA was asked on Sept. 7, 2012 for an update on its outlook of the threat landscape and provided the following statement: James Dobbins, director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation (as of Sept. 7, 2012) Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution senior fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative and director of research for the Foreign Policy program (as of Sept. 7, 2012)
  • Global terrorism
  • Al-Qaida resurgence
  • Threat from Iran
  • War in Iraq
  • Cyber
  • Dealing with a growing and modernizing China
  • North East Asia/ North Korea
  • Vulnerabilities in information sharing and management
  • Afghanistan – Could we build a society naturally immune to a Taliban resurgence?
  • The realities of a Russia in transition
  • “Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that the CIA’s primary strategic challenge is to balance its counterterrorism mission – still a top priority for the Agency – with its mandate for global coverage. It’s hard work, but we’re succeeding by staying focused on protecting the American people while applying deep expertise to analyzing international developments that affect US national security.” - John Tomczyk CIA Chief of Media Relations

  • Rising China
  • Iranian nuclear proliferation
  • Spillover war from Syria to neighboring countries
  • Narco-violence from Mexico and the Caribbean
  • Global warming
  • Another economic crisis
  • Terrorism
  • Collapse of North Korea
  • Revolution in Saudi Arabia
  • Something no one can imagine, which is most likely

  • Al-Qaida
  • Threats in Afghanistan
  • Pakistan and South Asia
  • Iran
  • Middle East insecurity
  • Syria
  • North Africa instability (Egypt – Tunisia)

  • Mexico is the only significant difference in the threats represented on the list from Hayden in 2008 and the 2012 lists.

    There are, however, other threats that don’t appear on the lists.

    Clapper says the variety, scope and magnitude of these threats bothers him.

    “I don’t know that we have the luxury to pick one as the most important, since we have to think about all of them,” he says.

    In order to gain a more balanced view of national security issues and threats, WTOP asked more than 125 times since January of 2009 for interviews with senior National Security Council leadership. During that time frame, WTOP was granted two interviews with one of the young stars in the White House, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.

    In the last interview, one year ago, Rhodes said something that played out with the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens this week.

    “For several months we’ve been anticipating the potential for a group like al- Qaida to take advantage of the 9/11 anniversary and we know from the information we found in bin Laden’s compound that he was focused on the 10th anniversary,” he said.

    In addition to thinking about threats, keeping up appearances around the world while wrestling with those threats is becoming a great concern.

    Former National Security Adviser James Jones said he spoke recently with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who expressed concern about the U.S. focus.

    “He said, ‘You have announced a national policy of pivoting towards Asia. What’s interesting about that is Asia has announced a national policy pivoting toward Africa – so be careful you don’t get left out here,'” Jones says.

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    (Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)


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