One of the findings of the 9/11 Commission was that information developed by US intelligence agencies and forwarded to the President was not fully coordinated across those agencies. Since 1947, the Director of the CIA had also been the Director of Central Intelligence, and in theory was the integrator of information developed by all 16 members of the “Intelligence Community” (IC). But in fact, the various agencies did not always work well together, contributing to the failure to “connect the dots” before 9/11. As a result, the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was established by The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
Additionally, congressional inquiry into the failure to find the much ballyhooed WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in Iraq after the US invasion also turned up the distressing fact that several intel chiefs claimed to have disagreed with the WMD report that went to the President. But they maintained that they performed their duty adequately when they simply refused to “sign off,” and felt no responsibility for failing to advise the President of their reservations.
Congress was not amused by such game playing, and insisted that in the future the new DNI coordinate all efforts at the most senior levels of the IC. Unfortunately, congressional patrons of various individual agencies (like the CIA, FBI, DOD, etc.) stepped in to block authority in the only two areas that really matter to bureaucracies: personnel and funding. And so the DNI’s power to actually coordinate the IC remains limited.
That said, the DNI can still require IC leaders to review various national level reports, and either concur or state the reasons they disagree. For this reason the DNI’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, recently presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, really does represent the position of the entire US Intelligence Community. And the report for 2013 offers some interesting insights into how the IC sees the world.
Perhaps the most striking point about the assessment is the top billing it gives to cyber threats against the United States. While careful to note that there is only “a remote chance of a major cyber attack against US critical infrastructure systems during the next two years,” it nonetheless points out that cyber technologies are growing faster than we can understand “the security implications and mitigate potential risks.” And so we might find that an unexpected cascade of failures follows a relatively limited attack, as vulnerabilities “at one node might spill over and contaminate” other parts of a network. Neither the examples provided (banks, stock exchanges, private companies, electrical grids) nor the implications of attack are new. But the prominence accorded the threat of attack is new, as is the emphasis on cyber espionage, which is closing our lead in military technology, and reducing our economic advantage internationally.
A second insight from the assessment is the emphasis on transnational organized crime as a threat to the United States. Terrorism remains a concern, of course, and the dedication of Al Qaeda and other jihadist threats to attacks mounted on US soil or overseas remains undiminished. But continued US pressure (ie, targeted killing) has forced terrorist threats into what the report calls “a transitional period as the global jihadist movement becomes increasingly decentralized.” In other words, our main enemy has been smashed into splinter groups. Unfortunately, at the same time, the threat from organized crime has risen to unprecedented levels.
At the top of this list is drug trafficking. Mexico and Colombia still lead the list of countries sending poison into the US in the form of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Meanwhile, the violence and corruption associated with the drug trade extends beyond these two countries to undermine government and stability in West Africa and Afghanistan as well. And money laundering to the tune of more than a trillion dollars annually spreads corruption globally, while endangering the US financial system through the illicit flow of dollars around the world. Even more disturbing is the blurring of the line between government, intelligence, business and criminal enterprise in many countries, making reliable business, military and diplomatic relations almost impossible.
Of special note in the testimony is the trafficking of up to 20 million humans around the world, mostly for illegal exploitation as sex slaves and oppressed workers.
Of course the testimony lists many of the “regular suspects” who always appear as continuing threats to the United States, including WMD proliferation, dangers to the network of global supplies and resources, and growing capabilities of potential enemies to impact US assets in space. And long standing regional concerns continue to evolve from the Middle East to South Asia, East Asia, Russia, Africa, and the Americas. Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela offer special concerns in this latter category, given the potential for unpredictable events in each area.
These last issues really represent nothing new for the IC, whose job it is to watch worrying trends and foresee unfavorable developments before they develop. In general, we need to stay awake to these threats, but we do not need to lose sleep over them.
But it is impossible to read this congressional testimony by the Director of National Intelligence without getting the impression that something new and dangerous is afoot in the areas of cyber security and transnational organized crime. The DNI has done his job. We have a warning integrated across the entire Intelligence Community. Now it is time for the Administration and Congress to pause from their focus on politics and focus on strategic solutions to these very real problems while we still have time to forestall them.