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Intelligence chief: Growing risk of Iran attacking U.S. targets

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Iran is stepping up its spying against the United States, and Tehran might launch terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, including those in the homeland, if the Islamic regime feels threatened, the top U.S. intelligence chief said Tuesday.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper cited last year's discovery of a plot by Iranian officials to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington as evidence of Tehran's threat to the U.S.

It "shows that some Iranian officials - probably including supreme leader Ali Khamenei - have changed their calculus and are now more will[JUMP]ing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime," he testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"Iran's willingness to sponsor future attacks in the United States or against our interests abroad probably will be shaped by Tehran's evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot against the ambassador," Mr. Clapper said.

His testimony noted that Tehran "continues to support proxies and surrogates abroad" - a reference, in part, to the regime's links with Hezbollah, a militant Shiite group that is part of Lebanon's government but which U.S. officials say is a terrorist outfit involved in the global drug trade.

"Iran is keeping its options open to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so," Mr. Clapper said, essentially echoing his testimony during a similar hearing on foreign intelligence threats last year.

Senators questioned Mr. Clapper and other intelligence officials about the growing tensions over Tehran's nuclear program, and in particular about whether Israel would strike Iran this year.

"We're doing a lot with the Israelis, working together with them," Mr. Clapper said, adding that he is "very, very concerned" about a strike. He asked to discuss this "very sensitive issue" in closed session.

CIA Director David H. Petraeus said he met with the head of the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad in Washington last week.

"That is part of an ongoing dialogue" that includes monthly chats with senior Israeli officials, said Mr. Petraeus, a retired Army general.

Both men noted that Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as "an existential threat," which Mr. Petraeus said should be kept in mind as officials mull the issue.

Iran has joined Russia and China as one of the "most menacing foreign intelligence threats" to the U.S., Mr. Clapper testified. Foreign intelligence services from those three countries "will remain the top threats to the United States in the coming years."

"Iran's intelligence operations against the United States, including cyber capabilities, have dramatically increased in recent years in depth and complexity," he said.

Previous assessments of the foreign spy threat, such as last year's report to Congress by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, identified economic espionage by Russia and China as a top-tier intelligence threat, but did not highlight Iran.

A former U.S. counterintelligence chief told The Washington Times that is significant.

"Rank-ordering foreign intelligence threats is an art. [You have to ask,] 'Which of these foreign intelligence activities present the greatest threat to the U.S. and our national security interests in the world?'[ThSp]" said Michelle Van Cleave, director of the counterintelligence executive's office in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Putting Iran in the top tier "suggests that this administration is seriously concerned, as they absolutely should be, about Iranian foreign intelligence activities," she said.

Iranian intelligence activities were prolific in areas where the U.S. was "deeply engaged" - Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East and, increasingly, the Western Hemisphere, Ms. Van Cleave said.

Cybersecurity specialists offered mixed responses to Mr. Clapper's testimony about Iranian cyber capabilities.

The Washington Times reported in October that an Iranian hacker, possibly state-sponsored, is widely thought to have been behind several breaches last year of the Internet security system known as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). Computer users know the system as the padlock in the browser that shows that online shopping, banking and other communications are secure.

Without mentioning Iran, Mr. Clapper said the SSL breach "represents a threat to one of the most fundamental technologies used to secure online communications and sensitive transactions."

Foreign intelligence services "have launched numerous computer-network operations targeting U.S. government agencies, businesses and universities," Mr. Clapper said without naming them. "Foreign cyber-actors have also begun targeting classified networks."

He noted that the pace of technological development outstripped the efforts of security officials to defend vital U.S. information-technology networks. "We foresee a cyber-environment in which emerging technologies are developed and implemented before security responses can be put in place."

Nigel Inkster, a former senior British intelligence official, said that the SSL attack was "ingenious" and that the Iranians "probably achieved quite a lot of what they wanted to" with it.

But Mr. Inkster, now director of the Transnational Threats and Political Risk Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, noted that the SSL attack seemed primarily designed to eavesdrop on Iran's own citizens.

"It's a harbinger of things to come," he said.

James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expressed skepticism that Iran's cyber capabilities might pose a threat to the United States.

The Iranians had been "pursuing cyber capabilities," he said, and even "tested certain capabilities against Israel."

But he added that "we [the public] don't know how successful they've been."

"It's not a problem right now, but it could be in the future," Mr. Lewis said of the Iranian threat of a cyberattack.

Mr. Lewis was more sanguine than many others on the issue of threats from non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, crime networks and hackers.

Mr. Clapper singled out the computer-hacking alliance Anonymous and its splinter group LulzSec as growing threats because of their "easy access to potentially disruptive and even lethal technology and know-how."

But Mr. Lewis said such groups "do not have the capability to launch a truly damaging attack" and are unlikely to develop it in the near future.

"This isn't going to happen next week," he said. "It'll take years."

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