- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

In a stark departure from the Bush years, the U.S. intelligence community now says the failing global economy is a bigger threat to U.S. security than al Qaeda or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which had led the list for years.

The U.S. is still engaged in two wars but Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, a retired Navy admiral, told Congress Thursday a worsening economy leads the list of “emerging areas of concern,” and said other growing threats include global warming and worldwide food, water and energy shortages.

Adm. Blair even appeared to put pressure on Congress to take quick action to try to stem the economic downturn, though he did not mention any specific action such as President Obama’s economic recovery package.

“Time is probably our greatest threat. The longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to U.S. strategic interests,” Adm. Blair said.

In his assessment Adm. Blair said al Qaeda is less of a threat now than it was a year ago, both because of efforts in Pakistan and improved security in Iraq, though he said the organization and its head, Osama bin Laden, remain intent on attacking the U.S.

He also warned of an “Arc of Instability” stretching from the Middle East to South Asia that will be the source of challenges throughout the century.

Adm. Blair was testifying to the Senate intelligence committee Thursday afternoon.

His comments on the economy were the biggest change from past threat assessments. In recent years the annual assessment, delivered to Congress by the nation’s top intelligence officer, has focused primarily on terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

In 2008, then-DNI Director Michael McConnell put “the continuing global terrorist threat” at the top of his list, though he did also recognize a growing danger of political instability in poor countries because of rising food and energy prices.

One economist said the intelligence warning on the economy was “probably exaggerated.”

Desmond Lachman, a resident fellow at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, said emerging markets are likely to be affected, and that could cause problems.

“A place like Russia, that was counting on high oil revenues, or a place like China that is very dependent on increasing its exports abroad, those places are now going to have very deep recessions. China has a very big employment problem,” he said. “Both China and Russia could be venturing into foreign adventures in order to distract domestic attention from the problems with the economy.”

As to whether those consequences were worse than other conventional strategic threats, Mr. Lachman said he did not know. “If Iran is developing a nuclear weapon and launching a satellite into space I can’t say that is less of threat that the global economic crisis.”

In his testimony Adm. Blair said a quarter of the countries in the world have already had “low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown.”

Adm. Blair said the poor economy might keep U.S. allies from being able to keep up with defense or humanitarian missions, and said it could also produce a wave of economic refugees coming to the U.S. from Caribbean nations.

On the positive side, Adm. Blair said high oil prices will “put the squeeze on the adventurism of producers like Iran and Venezuela” — nations that have clashed with U.S. interests in recent years.

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