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U.S. Intelligence Community’s statement on Worldwide Threat Assessment for 2016

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing on “Current and projected national security threats to the U.S” from Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper. The fast and radical change in the world and our threat environment is demanding reevaluations of the way we do business, expanding our analytic envelope, and altering the vocabulary of intelligence. Threats are more diverse, interconnected, and viral than at any time in history. Attacks, which might involve cyber and financial weapons, can be deniable and unattributable. Destruction can be invisible, latent, and progressive. Clapper states that, the Intelligence Community must continue to promote collaboration among experts in every field, from the political and social sciences to natural sciences, medicine, military issues, and space.

Sections / threats highlighted in the report include:

  1. Cyber and Technology

The report expressed concerns over emerging cyber threats to government functions, industry and commerce, health care, social communication, and personal information. Critical infrastructure, particularly the Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems used in water management, oil and gas pipelines, electrical power distribution, and mass transit, provide an enticing target to malicious actors.

The report identifies Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and Non state actors as principal threat actors. Russian cyber actors, who post disinformation on commercial websites, might seek to alter online media as a means to influence public discourse and create confusion. Chinese military doctrine outlines the use of cyber deception operations to conceal intentions, modify stored data, transmit false data, manipulate the flow of information, or influence public sentiments—all to induce errors and miscalculation in decision-making.

The increased reliance on AI for autonomous decisionmaking is creating new vulnerabilities to cyberattacks and influence operations. However, AI systems are susceptible to a range of disruptive and deceptive tactics that might be difficult to anticipate or quickly understand. Efforts to mislead or compromise automated systems might create or enable further opportunities to disrupt or damage critical infrastructure or national security networks.

The report goes on to warn that we should prepare for increasingly destructive attacks that are designed to render systems inoperable or could delete critical information as advanced malware and techniques continue to evolve and proliferate. The “Internet of Things” shall become targets of threat actors threatening their security and safety.

 

  1. Terrorism

The report warns, “Acute and enduring nature of demographic, economic, political, social, and technological factors contribute to the motivation of individuals and groups and their participation in violent extremist activities. These factors ensure that terrorism will remain one of several primary national security challenges for the United States in 2016.”

Sunni violent extremism has been on an upward trajectory since the late 1970s and has more groups, members, and safe havens than at any other point in history. At the same time, Shia violent extremists will probably deepen sectarian tensions in response to real and perceived threats from Sunni violent extremists and to advance Iranian influence.

The July 2015 attack against military facilities in Chattanooga and December 2015 attack in San Bernardino demonstrate the threat that homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) also pose to the homeland. ISIL involvement in homeland attack activity will probably continue to involve those who draw inspiration from the group’s highly sophisticated media without direct guidance from ISIL leadership and individuals in the United States or abroad who receive direct guidance and specific direction from ISIL members or leaders. ISIL’s global appeal continues to inspire individuals in countries outside Iraq and Syria to travel to join the group.

More than 36,500 foreign fighters—including at least 6,600 from Western countries—have traveled to Syria from more than100 countries since the conflict began in 2012.Although al-Qa‘ida’s presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been significantly degraded, it aspires to attack the US and its allies

 

  1. Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation

Nation-state efforts to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their delivery systems, or their underlying technologies constitute a major threat to the security of the United States, its deployed troops, and allies. Use of chemical weapons in Syria by both state and nonstate actors demonstrates that the threat of WMD is real.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs will continue to pose a serious threat to US interests and to the security environment in East Asia in 2016. North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and its assistance to Syria’s 7 construction of a nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, illustrate its willingness to proliferate dangerous technologies.

Genome Editing: The report finds that the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of genome editing, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications. Advances in genome editing in 2015 have compelled groups of high-profile US and European biologists to question unregulated editing of the human germline (cells that are relevant for reproduction), which might create inheritable genetic changes.

 

  1. Space and Counterspace

Russia and China continue to improve the capabilities of their military and intelligence satellites and grow more sophisticated in their operations. Threats to our use of military, civil, and commercial space systems will increase in the next few years as Russia and China progress in developing counterspace weapon systems to deny, degrade, or disrupt US space systems.

There’s growing concern over the development of capabilities that can disrupt US use of space in a conflict, the anti-satellite technologies that can interfere with, damage, and destroy reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites.

Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine highlights at least three space-enabled capabilities— “global strike,” the “intention to station weapons in space,” and “strategic non-nuclear precision weapons”—as main external military threats to the Russian Federation. Russia and China are also employing more sophisticated satellite operations and are probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.

 

  1. Counterintelligence

The insider threats will also pose a persistent challenge, unauthorized disclosure of information to state adversaries, nonstate activists, or other entities will continue to pose a critical threat. Insiders who disclose sensitive US Government information without authorization will remain a significant threat in 2016.

Sophisticated foreign intelligence entities will continue to employ human and cyber means to seek data on advanced weapons systems and proprietary information from US companies and research institutions that deal with energy, finance, the media, defense, and dual-use technology.

Nonstate entities, including international terrorist groups and transnational organized crime organizations, will continue to employ and potentially improve their intelligence capabilities, which include human, cyber, and technical means.

 

  1. Transnational Organized Crime

This is a huge problem involving things as drug and person trafficking, money laundering, and illicit trade in wildlife, timber, and marine resources that endangers the environment, threatens rule of law and border security in fragile regions, and destabilizes communities that depend on wildlife for biodiversity and ecotourism.

The report assesses that the ongoing global migration crises—a post-WWII record 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons—will fuel an increase in the global volume of human trafficking victims as men, women, and children undertake risky migration ventures and fall prey to sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage and other trafficking crimes.

  1. Economics and Natural Resources

Competition for and secure access to natural resources (e.g. food, water, and energy) are growing security threats. Risks to freshwater supplies due to shortages, poor quality, floods, and climate change are growing. Lack of adequate water is a destabilizing factor in developing countries that do not have the management mechanisms, financial resources, or technical ability to solve their internal water problems. In addition, intense storms, including typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes and cyclones will likely continue to place stress on first responders, nongovernment organizations, and militaries that are often called to provide humanitarian assistance.

As polar ice recedes and resource extraction technology improves, however, economic and security concerns will raise the risk of increased competition between Arctic and non-Arctic nations over access to sea routes and resources. Russia will almost certainly continue to bolster its military presence along its northern coastline to improve its perimeter defense and control over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It will also almost certainly continue to seek international support for its extended continental shelf claim and its right to manage ship traffic within its EEZ.

 

  1. Health Risks and Pandemic Threats

Including the emergence and spread of new or reemerging microbes, the globalization of travel and the food supply, the rise of drug-resistant pathogens (and the so-called post-antibiotic world), the acceleration of biological science capabilities and the risk that these capabilities might cause inadvertent or intentional release of pathogens, and adversaries’ acquisition, development, and use of weaponized agents.

Zika virus, an emerging infectious disease threat first detected in the Western Hemisphere in 2014, is projected to cause up to 4 million cases in 2016; it will probably spread to virtually every country in the hemisphere. Although the virus is predominantly a mild illness, and no vaccine or treatment is available, the Zika virus might be linked to devastating birth defects in children whose mothers were infected during pregnancy

  1. Human Security

Extreme weather, climate change, environmental degradation, related rising demand for food and water, poor policy responses, and inadequate critical infrastructure will probably exacerbate—and potentially 14 spark—political instability, adverse health conditions, and humanitarian crises in 2016.

Europe will almost certainly continue to face record levels of arriving refugees and other migrants in 2016 unless the drivers causing this historic movement toward the continent change significantly in 2016, which we judge is unlikely.

The threat of disruptive social environments caused by increased social mobilization, violent conflict (including communal violence), and “other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses.”

 

The whole report can be read here:

https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/SASC_Unclassified_2016_ATA_SFR_FINAL.pdf

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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