The Cable

Joint Chiefs Nominee: Russia Could Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to the U.S.

Washington is arguing with itself over the biggest threat to the United States.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 09:  Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford Jr. arrives for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. During testimony, Dunford identified Russia as the biggest threat facing the United States and that if budget sequestration was to continue, the U.S. military will face 'catastrophic consequences.'  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 09: Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford Jr. arrives for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. During testimony, Dunford identified Russia as the biggest threat facing the United States and that if budget sequestration was to continue, the U.S. military will face 'catastrophic consequences.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What is the gravest threat to U.S. national security today? If you ask two of the nation’s top military and intelligence leaders, you’ll get different answers.

During his confirmation hearing Thursday morning, President Barack Obama’s pick to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Vladimir Putin’s Russia ranked No.1.

Moscow’s behavior is “nothing short of alarming,” the general said, adding that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security” and “could pose an existential threat to the United States.”

The notion that a Russia that has mounted a de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine and openly threatened other European countries could pose a serious threat to the United States isn’t a groundbreaking observation. It does, however, directly conflict with the assessment that James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, gave the same committee earlier this year. During his February testimony, Clapper said unequivocally that cyberattacks against the nation’s infrastructure were the biggest threat to the United States

Clapper didn’t pose the threat in terms of a “cyber-Armageddon,” but rather, as an “ongoing series of low-to-moderate level cyberattacks from a variety of sources over time,” which could slowly erode American confidence and competitiveness, he said.

But the issue isn’t completely black and white. Clapper himself admitted that threat coming from Russian hackers “is more severe than we have previously assessed,” while declining to go into more detail in a public forum.

While the cyberthreat didn’t play much of a role in Dunford’s Senate session, he did say in written responses to questions submitted before the hearing that “we face challenges from state actors including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea,” all of which have their own offensive hacking capabilities.

And in an interesting turn, Dunford did say that the “most significant” shortfall that he sees in the NATO alliance is defense against cyberattacks.

After Russia, according to Dunford, come threats from China, North Korea, and the Islamic State. Clapper, meanwhile, cited the dangers posed by so-called “lone-wolf” attackers and then al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which employs a master bombmaker that American officials fear could one day take down a Western airliner.

The range of potential threats outlined by the two leaders gives some insight into the broad range of hotspots that Washington’s national security apparatus is confronting. They also notably leave out Iran, which is locked in fierce negotiations with the administration over the future of its nuclear program.

In his testimony, Dunford said that even if there is a deal, “my expectation is that Iran will continue its malign activities” in the Middle East, supporting fighters in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and “exacerbating Sunni-[Shiite] division across the region.”

Iran, he added, was the most “destabilizing force in the Middle East today” — even if it wasn’t the biggest threat to the United States.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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