U.S. intelligence ranks cyber threat tops; Afghanistan, not so much

The U.S. intelligence community’s highly anticipated annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” is out, and cybersecurity is apparently the leading threat confronting the United States, warranting 18 paragraphs of concerns. Afghanistan? Four. Pakistan? Three. The times, they are a changing, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who declared that global threats are “quickly and radically” ...

JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. intelligence community’s highly anticipated annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” is out, and cybersecurity is apparently the leading threat confronting the United States, warranting 18 paragraphs of concerns.

Afghanistan? Four.

Pakistan? Three.

The U.S. intelligence community’s highly anticipated annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” is out, and cybersecurity is apparently the leading threat confronting the United States, warranting 18 paragraphs of concerns.

Afghanistan? Four.

Pakistan? Three.

The times, they are a changing, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who declared that global threats are “quickly and radically” changing and that terrorism is in a period of “transition.”

The DNI breaks down the threat into areas such as “Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime,” “WMD Proliferation,” “Counterintelligence,” “Counterspace,” “ Natural Resources,” “Health and Pandemic Threats,” and “Mass Atrocities.”

The second half of the assessment breaks down threats by geographic regions.

Such assessments can sound dire warnings, but they are also heavily caveated. Cyber gets the most attention in the report, but its discussion of the threat is riddled with hems and haws about the likelihood of an attack and how much damage it could do.

“We judge that there is a remote chance of a major cyber attack against US critical infrastructure systems during the next two years that would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage,” Clapper wrote.

Previous attacks on banks and stock exchanges have cut off access, but “the attacks did not alter customers’ accounts or affect other financial functions.”

Even an August 2012 cyberattack that left 30,000 computers at Saudi Aramco “unusable" was not severe enough to "impair production capabilities.”

The more concerning fact, it seems, is that “foreign intelligence and security services have penetrated numerous computer networks” across the United states. Those systems that are “highly networked” and contain “sensitive U.S. national security and economic data” are being targeted successfully. "This is almost certainly allowing our adversaries to close the technological gap between our respective militaries,” Clapper reported.

As for terrorists, Clapper offered no new characterizations from what defense leaders frequently say publicly. The “core” al Qaeda (the one that attacked the U.S. 11 years ago) has been pretty much dealt with, but now there’s a spreading movement picking up steam across the globe.

Clapper predicts that the core “is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West.” But attacks inside the U.S. are still its goal — and the primary goal of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

More unpredictable, he says, is what terrorists across North Africa will do next, due to the lax border control and counterterrorism efforts in countries struggling with leadership transitions, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.

Intelligence officials have recently linked al Qaeda in the Islamic Magheb to Nigeria-based Boko Haram. But Clapper’s report offers just one line on Boko Haram, predicting it will continue picking homegrown targets in Nigeria.

In Afghanistan, security remains “fragile” after a decade of U.S. led counterinsurgency. The areas quelled by the surge are even worse off, Clapper claims. “Security gains are especially fragile in areas where ISAF surge forces have been concentrated since 2010.”

“We assess that the Taliban-led insurgency has diminished in some areas of Afghanistan but remains resilient and capable of challenging US and international goals,” Clapper writes. Afghan forces “will require international assistance through 2014 and beyond,” he argues, lest there be any doubt. The army and police are doing better but the Afghan Air Force “has made very little progress.”

Later Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary George Little declined to comment directly on the DNI’s assessment of progress in Afghanistan or its brief treatment as a threat to the U.S.  But Little, having just returned from accompanying Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on his first visit to Afghanistan this weekend as secretary, offered a mildly defensive take.

"We have to make sure that the ANSF over time is able to maintain force and sustain the gains that have been made. That’s the endgame here," he said, "It’s not just about the political will."

"That’s our assessment, we believe it’s on track," Little added. "I’m not saying it’s a nicely paved road to the future. There are going to be potholes and bumps in the road and rocks and gravel, and we’ve got to be honest about that."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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