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U.S. Spy Chiefs Think the World Is Pretty Much Going to Hell

From the Islamic State gaining strength in Libya to Kim Jong Un shopping some of the world’s most dangerous weapons, here are the top takeaways from a grim day with the nation’s top spooks.


America’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, opened his testimony before Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee’s worldwide threats hearing with what he called a “litany of doom”: nation-states crumbling, resource scarcity driving armed conflict, and the migrant crisis in Europe continuing. Oh, and Afghanistan is at serious risk of a political breakdown.

Indeed, Clapper and his fellow witnesses – the heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and Defense Intelligence Agency – had scant good news to offer. From the latest on the San Bernardino terror attack to how your fridge will one day spy on you, these are the most interesting moments from a grim and at-times tense hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

The Islamic State is going big in Libya

Outside of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State’s “most developed” branch resides in Libya, Clapper said Tuesday. With fighters finding it increasingly difficult to travel to Syria, many are opting for Libya instead.

Since the 2011 intervention in Libya that ousted strongman Muammar Gaddaffi, the country has become a cauldron of warring militias with varying ideologies. Brennan warned the Islamic State affiliate, which already controls swaths of territory, is well-positioned to make further gains.

Clapper said conditions in Libya in some ways resemble Iraq and Syria before the Islamic State’s takeover there. Libya, Clapper said, is a mostly ungoverned space rich in oil, and the Islamic State’s immediate goal is to expand along the Mediterranean coast and gain additional territory. U.S. officials believe that the ISIS leadership in Syria has dispatched experienced battlefield commanders, as well as ordinary fighters, to Libya to take part in the war.

The FBI can’t get into San Bernardino shooter’s phone

It’s been two months since Islamist militants killed 14 people at a community center in San Bernardino, California, but FBI Director James Comey said an unspecified encryption system has so far prevented his agents from getting access to what he implied was a key piece of evidence in their investigation.

Comey has in recent months stepped up his argument that FBI agents are unable to do their jobs because the widespread availability of powerful encryption tools has made it impossible in some cases to access suspects’ communications, even with a valid court order.

Terror groups have eagerly embraced encrypted communications, and Tuesday’s revelation by Comey is at least the second time the FBI boss has claimed that encryption has undermined a probe. Comey has previously said that because of encryption the FBI was unable to read messages between a suspect in the deadly shooting at a cartoon exhibit in Garland, Texas, and an unknown person overseas.

But in a later exchange, Comey characterized the “going dark” problem as one primarily affecting local law enforcement, not federal terrorism investigations. Phones that the FBI can’t access because of encryption technology hold evidence for cases including murders, kidnappings, and even car crashes, Comey said.

Iran’s financial windfall isn’t going to terror — yet

Critics of the nuclear deal with Iran, which traded expansive sanctions relief in exchange for harsh restrictions on the country’s nuclear program, often argue that the money made available to the Middle Eastern nation will go to fund terror.

At least so far, Brennan said, that’s not the case. Most of the money, he said, was going towards what he called “encumbrances” – paying off debts and making investments in the oil industry, he said. The amount that has flowed to the Quds Force – the overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – has “not been very much.”

That said, Brennan cautioned that the Quds Force found a way to finance their activities when sanctions were in place – and they’ll likely to continue doing so as sanctions are lifted.

Spies are excited about the ‘Internet of Things’

The so-called “Internet of Things” refers to how tech firms are connecting household items such as fridges, thermostats, and home security systems to the Internet in order to allow consumers better control and access to their devices. Security experts say that these devices are frequently rolled out with weak security protections, and researchers have demonstrated their ability to hack, for example, Samsung’s smart fridge.

That, in turns, gives the intelligence community potential new gold mines of material.

“In the future, intelligence services might use the [“Internet of Things”] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” Clapper said in his prepared remarks.

Note that Clapper doesn’t specify which intelligence service might use such a capability.

Kim Jong Un is selling his wares

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn’t just test-firing missiles and carrying out nuclear tests to firm up domestic support or try to frighten his rivals in Tokyo and Seoul, CIA Director John Brennan said; instead, the spy chief said Kim was also doing it to advertise his country’s missile offerings to the world.

Asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to assess Kim’s intention, Brennan highlighted that Pyongyang has a lucrative trade in overseas weapons sales and exports. The missile tests, Brennan said, are “also as a way to market some of his proliferation capabilities.”

Good data on the value of North Korean arms exports are hard to come by, but they likely generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the regime.

Brennan and Wyden go to war

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden provided the fireworks for Tuesday’s hearing when he asked Brennan whether he was prepared to apologize for his agency’s snooping on Senate staffers as they assembled a report on detention policies during the Bush administration.

Brennan groused that he was there to testify about worldwide threats, but Wyden pressed his case, demanding an apology. Brennan fired back that he had already offered an apology to the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and to Feinstein, but Wyden pressed on. The exchange quickly devolved into a heated argument between the CIA boss and the Oregon Democrat — a persistent and vocal critic of the agency — about who really was at fault in the episode.

Wyden argued that the behavior of CIA staffers were “unacceptable in a free society.” Brennan, meanwhile, argued that his employees had been forced to snoop on Senate staffers after they were discovered in possession of documents they shouldn’t have had access to. Brennan pointedly asked Wyden when the Senate Intelligence Committee planned to complete its review of staffers’ behavior.

Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

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