President Obama’s top intelligence official warned Tuesday that the country is facing an unusually broad range of security threats, from Islamic State recruitment of extremists inside the U.S., to Iranian support for terrorism, to the expanding pursuit by Russia and China of cyberspying technology and weapons capable of neutralizing U.S. satellites orbiting the earth.
But it was Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper’s claims on North Korea — particularly that it is expanding its uranium-enrichment activities, has restarted a once-shuttered plutonium reactor and is seeking a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that can hit the U.S. — that drew the most attention.
While Pyongyang has not yet “flight-tested” a system that could deliver such a missile to the U.S. mainland, it has “taken initial steps toward fielding this system,” Mr. Clapper told lawmakers on Capitol Hill as part of the intelligence community’s annual assessment of global threats.
The White House revealed Tuesday that President Obama conferred by phone with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Monday evening on how to respond to North Korea’s satellite launch over the weekend.
“In my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I cannot recall a more diverse array of crises and challenges than we face today,” Mr. Clapper said at a daylong Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.
The spy chief was joined by Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and later in the day appeared with FBI Director James B. Comey and CIA Director John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Gen. Stewart told lawmakers that North Korea’s display of a “new or modified” mobile bomb module during a recent parade, as well as its “2015 test of a new submarine launch ballistic missile capability further highlight Pyongyang’s commitment to diversifying its missile force and nuclear-delivery options.”
The rise of Islamic State
Aside from North Korea, the two intelligence chiefs spoke at length about the evolving threat of jihadi terrorism worldwide.
Mr. Clapper told lawmakers that the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — has eclipsed al Qaeda as the world’s preeminent jihadi terrorist organization, and predicted that U.S.-based homegrown extremists inspired by the group will “pose the most significant threat” to the American homeland over the coming year.
Mr. Comey revealed that one of the phones used by the killers in the San Bernardino, California, attacks remains inaccessible to investigators more than two months after 14 people were fatally shot. He said the phone’s inaccessibility was an example of how encryption is affecting counterterrorism efforts.
At the same time, Mr. Clapper said, the older al Qaeda network and its various affiliates around the world have proven resilient and are also “positioned to make gains in 2016 despite counterterrorism pressure that has largely degraded the network’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“They will continue to pose a threat to local, regional and even possibly global interests, as demonstrated by the January 2015 attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by individuals linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).”
But Mr. Clapper suggested that intelligence officials believe Islamic State is growing more dangerously than al Qaeda’s affiliates. “ISIL’s global appeal continues to inspire individuals in countries outside Iraq and Syria to travel to join the group,” he said.
“More than 36,500 foreign fighters — including at least 6,600 from Western countries — have traveled to Syria from more than 100 countries since the conflict began in 2012,” the spy chief said. “Foreign fighters who have trained in Iraq and Syria might potentially leverage skills and experience to plan and execute attacks in the West.”
“A prominent example,” he added, was the “November 2015 attacks in Paris in which the plotters included European foreign fighters returning from Syria.”
Mr. Clapper also homed in on the evolving threat of cyberattacks by politically and criminally motivated actors against both government and private U.S. computer networks.
Russia and China continue to have “the most sophisticated cyberprograms,” he said, asserting that Moscow is assuming a more assertive cyberposture and that China is known to be carrying out cyberespionage against U.S. companies and government interests.
“Iran and North Korea continue to conduct cyberespionage as they enhance their attack capabilities,” he added, saying that “nonstate actors also pose cyberthreats.” Islamic State specifically, Mr. Clapper said, has “used cyber to its great advantage, not only for recruitment and propaganda, but also to hack and release sensitive information about U.S. military personnel.”
Both Mr. Clapper and Mr. Stewart also pointed to more conventional military threats from Russia and China.
“China is pursuing a long-term comprehensive military modernization program,” said Mr. Clapper, who pointed to “massive structural reforms” undergone recently by the People’s Liberation Army, including “increasing the number of navy, air force and rocket force personnel [and] establishing a theater joint command system.”
He added that “China has the world’s largest and most comprehensive missile force and has prioritized the development and deployment of reasonable ballistic and cruise missiles to expand its conventional strike capabilities against U.S. forces in the [Pacific] region.”
On Russia, Mr. Clapper said Moscow’s military meddling in Ukraine and other aggressive moves are driven in part by a desire to show that Russia is a superpower equal to the United States. But he also said he believes Moscow is “paranoid” about NATO’s expansion and pointed to a danger that the U.S. and Russia are heading into a “Cold War-like spiral.”
The DNI chief said that Afghanistan is at “serious risk of a political breakdown during 2016.” He said waning political cohesion, rising activities by local power brokers, financial shortfalls and sustained attacks by the Taliban erode stability.
On Syria, Gen. Stewart said he believes Russian and Iranian support will continue to uphold the Assad regime for the near term. However, he predicted that Tehran and Moscow may ultimately become divided over Syria’s war because Iran “wants to become the regional hegemon.”
Mr. Clapper said Tehran has conducted some 140 ballistic missile test launches since the U.N. Security Council prohibited such tests in 2010. He said some 70 of the tests occurred during negotiations toward the recent nuclear accord with Tehran, and two that were carried out this fall were meant as “a deliberate message of defiance,” showing that the Iranians will proceed with “aggressive programs to develop their missile force” regardless of the nuclear accord.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear threat, Mr. Clapper said Pyongyang could begin recovering material for nuclear weapons in weeks or months.
He noted that North Korean officials had announced their intention in 2013 to refurbish nuclear facilities, to include the uranium-enrichment facility at Yongbyon and its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor, which were shut down in 2007.
“U.S. intelligence has now assessed that North Korea has expanded Yongbyon and restarted the plutonium production reactor there,” Mr. Clapper said, adding that the reactor has already been operating long enough that it could begin to recover plutonium “within a matter of weeks to months.”
The findings are expected to deepen fears in Washington and Seoul that North Korea is not only making technical advances in its nuclear weapons program — following its recent underground test explosion and rocket launch — but is also working to expand what is thought to be a small nuclear arsenal.
The Associated Press noted Tuesday that U.S.-based experts have estimated that North Korea may have about 10 bombs, but that could grow to between 20 and 100 by 2020.