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His comments on the economy marked the biggest shift from past threat assessments.

The vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, told Mr. Blair that he shared his concerns about the state of the economy but wanted to make sure the intelligence community would not be focusing on economic issues at the exclusion of more traditional threats.

“I hope you don’t mean by that that the primary focus of the intelligence community is going to be on finding out what you recently described as readily observable and open-source information on the conditions of the country,” he said.

Mr. Blair replied, “My intent in drawing attention to the economic crisis was more to inform policy of the things that could really cause real problems for the United States if they developed a certain way. But I won’t be turning satellites to look at GDP accounts.”

A former spokesman for the CIA, Bill Harlow, said Thursday, “It is very unusual for a threat assessment to include the U.S. economic calculation as part of its calculus, but we are living in extraordinary times and I believe it’s a reasonable position for him to take.”

In 2008, Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence at the time, put “the continuing global terrorist threat” at the top of his list, though he also recognized 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, acknowledged that emerging markets are likely to be affected.

“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.”

But Mr. Lachman added, “If Iran is developing a nuclear weapon and launching a satellite into space, I can’t say that is less of a threat than the global economic crisis.”

In his testimony, Mr. Blair said that a quarter of the nations around the world already have experienced “low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown.”