Looming budget cuts threaten U.S. intelligence operations: James Clapper

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The United States faces chemical weapons in Syria, nuclear weapons in Iran, a radicalized and aggressive North Korea, and not the least domestic issues of cyber security and budget shortfalls.

In his remarks during the yearly U.S. Senate Select Intelligence committee meeting on threats to the United States, U.S. National Intelligence chief James Clapper said Tuesday that looming budget cuts, as a part of the sequester, are major concerns for intelligence leaders.

The sequester, which seeks to limit spending across the board in government, leaves little room for decisions from the intelligence community about ways to make calculated cuts in hopes of retaining the core functions of the agencies. Senators Collins and Udall are trying to change that and draw attention to the “terrible threats we face" in the face of sequestration.

With the predicted loss of thousands of analysts, contractors, and furloughs for “thousands of FBI employees,” Clapper said the United States, “may risk missing an early sign of an attack.”

Such an attack is not far-fetched. Hundreds of them have happened recently, and from unlikely sources, and they have all happened online.

Cyber Security

In his prepared remarks, Clapper highlighted a growing threat of relatively unsophisticated cyber attacks on the American economy.

He said that a “major cyber attack” is remote and that Russia and China “are unlikely to launch such a devastating attack against the United States outside of a military conflict.”

Clapper added that “isolated state or non-state actors might deploy less sophisticated cyber attacks as a form of retaliation or provocation.”

Although less coordinated, such small attacks could have major consequences, he said. With the highly interconnected nature of power grids and other networks in the United States, one motivated and intelligent individual could access these functions.

Clapper noted that lax American Internet security has allowed foreign intelligence agencies “to close the technological gap between our respective militaries, slowly neutralizing one of our key advantages in the international arena.”

Recent executive orders from the Obama administration have made steps to correct these issues, but members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee say there is more that Congress needs to do and plan to evaluate that moving forward.

Meanwhile, other international issues still warrant concern for the U.S. intelligence.

Assad and Iran

Caller quoted U.S. intelligence reports indicating that “the opposition in Syria is gaining steam,” but that “the opposition is still fragmented.”

Although the Syrian armed opposition is making efforts to solidify its hold and establish a permanent base of operations along the Syrian border with Turkey, with hundreds of different opposition battalions facing the Assad regime, the disjointed organization is allowing the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, to gain steam.

Despite the apparent disorganization on the ground, the prognosis for the Assad regime is not great.

When asked how long Assad will last, Clapper said, “His days are numbered. We just don’t know the number.”

But with the projected fall of his regime, a potentially larger international concern grows in the background. Of increasing concern to the intelligence is the fact that the Syrian government may look to use chemical weapons against its own people. But with the incursion of al-Nusra Front and a “growing infusion of foreign fighters,” after the fall of the regime, these weapons may not be safe.

“Besides regimes’ use, nongovernmental groups or individuals in Syria could also gain access to such materials,” said Clapper, echoing similar concerns that he had stated over nuclear proliferation from Iran and North Korea.

Iran’s willingness to build these weapons in the first place, however, is a matter of some contention. Although recent intelligence shows that Iran has all the capacities to produce a nuclear weapon, it is unclear if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the will to do so.

This in part may be due to sanctions that have placed extreme pressure on the economy.

“I think it does concern them about the deterioration of the economy,” Clapper said, “because of the prospect for promoting unrest among the citizenry of Iran.”

That issue, combined with the Iranian stake in the success of Syria, puts Iran in a difficult situation.

“It would be a tremendous loss – strategic loss – for the Iranians if the regime falls.”

“Mark Kauzlarich is an intern in Al Arabiya’s Washington, D.C. Bureau. Follow him on Twitter at @MJKauz or find his photojournalism work at www.markkauzlarich.com.”

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