Manhattan Institute

Looming Threats

Russia and China have displaced radical Islam as our principal national security concerns.

The world is becoming ever more dangerous. So concluded President Donald J. Trump’s most senior intelligence and national security advisers in public testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “The risk of inter-state conflict is higher than any time since the Cold War,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told senators in his opening statement.

Articulating the warning in varying forms in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the chiefs of the U.S. intelligence community told the Senate panel that Russian efforts to affect the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections and other influence operations against the U.S. were ongoing. Coats added that given its success to date, relatively low cost, and the lack of U.S. retaliation or painful consequences for Moscow, Russia’s meddling was likely to continue.

The senior officials, who also included CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo, ranked Russian interference at or near the top of their list of grave threats. They also warned of the daily cyber-attacks against American government agencies, private business, and nonprofit educational and other institutions by nation-state and non-state actors; China’s patient but determined effort to replace America as the world’s superpower; and North Korea’s nuclear program, aimed at giving Pyongyang the ability to strike mainland America with an atomic bomb.

Implicit, but never specifically mentioned, was the question of Donald Trump’s loose managerial style. Several of the officials alluded vaguely to the impact of well-publicized White House chaos and mixed messaging, and the large number of vacancies in key national security posts, which have hampered efforts to formulate strategies and policies to counter growing threats. Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray referenced dysfunction at the top by citing the background check of Rob Porter, the White House aide who resigned under pressure last week following public disclosure of domestic abuse claims by two of his ex-wives. Wray’s version of the timeline, which says  that the Bureau completed a background check on Porter for a security clearance in late July—and the White House’s assertion that the Bureau investigations into him were ongoing—guarantees that the controversy over what White House officials knew about Porter’s alleged conduct will continue.

The senior national security officials testified in public session Tuesday morning and in closed session in the afternoon at the Senate Intelligence panel’s annual hearing on “worldwide threats.” While the committee holds such hearings each year, this year’s assessment comes in the wake of embarrassing disclosures about the theft of the NSA’s top-secret surveillance software, the loss of U.S. agents in China, and other intelligence setbacks.

Striking in today’s public hearing was the scant discussion of the terrorism threat posed by the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other jihadi groups. Whereas terrorism once topped the list of national security and intelligence challenges, recent gains against such groups in Iraq and Syria during the last years of the Obama administration and President Trump’s escalation of the war against such Islamic extremists have pushed what was once an omnipresent threat to the strategic back-burner. Concern about the implications of a failing but aggressive Russia and a rising China now overshadow the challenge that has driven American national security since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Committee chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner both focused on the growing danger of cyberattacks in their opening statements. “Cyber is clearly the most challenging in threat vector this country faces,” Burr said. “It’s also the most concerning, given how many aspects of our daily lives in the United States can be disrupted by a well-planned, well-executed cyberattack.” But Warner almost immediately focused on Russia. “We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter further attacks,” he said. “But I believe we still don’t have a comprehensive plan.” The national security team did not dispute that.

FBI director Wray warned that China, too, was turning to “more creative avenues” that businesses were not accustomed to spotting in order to steal intellectual property and American commercial secrets. He said that some American academics were “naïve” about Chinese efforts to exfiltrate American expertise though professional exchanges and gatherings.

CIA director Pompeo, a former member of Congress, said that his and other national security agencies were attempting to make U.S. agencies and other American entities aware of Russian efforts to influence American elections, and alluded to the government’s “offensive capability to raise the cost for those who would directly challenge integrity of our elections.” He declined to say more about such capabilities, adding that he could discuss such measures only behind closed doors. FBI director Wray said that his agency, working with the Department of Homeland Security, had recently briefed state and local election officials to educate them without using classified information about how Russia was trying to influence U.S. elections. In addition, Jeanette Manfra, the DHS’s chief cybersecurity official told the New York Times, the federal government has given at least interim “secret”-level security clearances to 21 election officials in 20 states, and added 32 states and 31 local governments to a system that conducts a nightly scan of computer systems connected to the internet for vulnerabilities.Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine, said that while Coats had given the committee “a factual statement about the activities of the Russians,” the warning would be far more powerful “if only the president would say that.” King continued, “I understand his sensitivity,” referring to the Federal investigation headed by Robert Mueller into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to sway the election. But though “there is no question that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election and pose a threat to our [future] elections,” many residents of Maine continue to believe that “the whole thing is a hoax.” 

FBI director Wray acknowledged that although his bureau had poured time and resources into stopping the flow of illegal opioids across the Mexican border into the U.S., another major national security threat, his agents were seeing more black market fentanyl being delivered. Though the agency’s office in Mexico City was among the world’s largest, his agents were overwhelmed by the numbers of shipments and routes being used, he said. When asked what had changed of late, another national security official replied that the five principal cartels that once shipped such drugs to the U.S. and other illegal gang and drug related activity had “devolved into 20.” The drug and opioid threat had now “grown to the point where no one agency can counter it effectively,” Wray said.

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