Report

Top Intel Official: U.S. Facing ‘Unprecedented’ Array of Threats

A senior Pentagon official warned that Washington can no longer take its technological advantages over its enemies for granted.

threats

ST. PETE BEACH, Florida — U.S. special operations forces now face a widening array of “non-geopolitical threats” that challenge them in realms in which the United States once held undisputed sway, a senior Pentagon intelligence official said Wednesday.

As an example, Garry Reid, a top deputy to Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, cited the widespread availability of commercial satellite imagery. “Where once you could assume that only you had the bird’s-eye view of the target area, now just about anybody can have [it],” he said during an address to a gathering of current and former special operations personnel here.

Reid said the proliferation of “quite challenging” commercial encryption capabilities also threatens U.S. dominance in signals intelligence, the difficult act of cracking into phone, Internet, and other forms of telecommunications networks around the world. “It’s not as easy as it once was to exploit adversary communications,” he said.

And without saying so in as many words, Reid suggested that technological advances are making it increasingly difficult for the United States to place intelligence operatives undercover. “Global biometrics, identity management, and the ability to track people [using] your electronic signature around the world becomes a challenge for us,” he said.

In his remarks, Reid led the audience on a global tour of what he described as an “unprecedented” plethora of challenges facing the United States, from the rise of the Islamic State and other violent Islamist extremist groups to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and Russian aggression against Ukraine. The confluence of so many asymmetrical challenges will continue to place a high demand on U.S. intelligence and special operations forces well into the future, he said.

“We’re sitting on top of the most powerful military arsenal … ever assembled,” he said, but added that most “conventional forces and strategic forces are barely applicable to any of these problems. That is quite a vexing scenario.”

Reid’s frank assessment highlights the intelligence community’s ongoing struggle to keep pace with the rapid technological advances and improved hacking skills that have given countries like Iran and North Korea the ability to target American networks almost as efficiently as the U.S. targets their own. Washington has had some remarkable successes — including the creation of viruses like Stuxnet, which dealt a serious blow to Iran’s nuclear program — but is also increasingly open about the quantity and quality of the threats posed by other potential adversaries.

Reid insisted that the Pentagon had made advances of its own in its attempt to stay ahead of its enemies. These included an elevenfold increase in aerial surveillance capabilities and the National Security Agency’s growing skills in code-breaking and hacking. Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have exposed many of the agency’s techniques for intercepting foreign communications, but Reid said that “despite leaks and despite exposures, [the U.S. ability to tap overseas phones and computers] continues to be an area of dominance.”

The Pentagon has also significantly expanded its human intelligence capabilities, Reid said, especially so in the cases of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Defense Clandestine Service and special operations forces. “SOF is now collecting a very hefty percentage of all defense intelligence,” he said, adding that a few years ago, “it was barely on the scale.”

“It’s become a dominant capability that we will continue to build,” he added.

Meanwhile, the creation of “intel-ops fusion centers” at most of the U.S. military’s geographic combatant commands as well as in deployed joint task forces has “sharpened” the military’s ability to analyze all that intelligence, according to Reid.

Still, Reid was careful to stress that the United States faced threats at home. “We’re looking at and developing a methodology for defeating insider threats and that includes leaks [and] espionage cases,” he said.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. @seandnaylor

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