WASHINGTON — With North Korea threatening war, Iran continuing its nuclear progress, and al-Qaida affiliates destabilizing governments in Africa, senior U.S. intelligence officials are due on Capitol Hill Tuesday for the annual worldwide threats hearing.
The open session before the Senate intelligence committee offers a forum for some of the most detailed public comments American intelligence leaders will make all year about the things that keep them awake at night. The date of a companion hearing in the House intelligence committee has not yet been announced.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is scheduled to testify, as is newly confirmed CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Also at the witness table will be Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen and Philip Goldberg, who leads the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
At last year’s hearing, officials raised the specter that Iran could sponsor terrorist attacks against American interests, in the wake of a 2011 plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington that U.S. officials say was the work of Iran’s Quds Force. That threat has not materialized, but Iran continues to enrich uranium in a way that brings it closer to being capable of constructing a nuclear weapon. U.S. intelligence officials have said for several years that the Iranian regime has made no decision to pursue a nuclear bomb, and any shift in that view, however nuanced, would make news.
On North Korea, U.S. officials initially had hopes that Kim Jong Un, who took office in December, 2011, would steer that country in a more responsible direction. Obama administration officials secretly visited the country in April and August. But those hopes have been dashed, and the North’s rhetoric is more bellicose than ever. On Monday, the official Korean Central News Agency declared that the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War had been nullified.
Obama national security adviser Tom Donilon addressed North Korea in a speech Monday to the Asia Society in New York, saying, “By now it is clear that the provocations, escalations and poor choices of North Korea’s leaders are not only making their country less secure — they are condemning their people to a level of poverty that stands in stark contrast not only to South Korea, but every other country in East Asia.”
How officials characterize the threat from al-Qaida will be closely watched. U.S. intelligence officials have been saying for years that the core of al-Qaida, based in Pakistan, has been all but destroyed, an impression bolstered last week by the arrest of a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, Sulaiman abu Ghaith, who for the last decade had been hiding in Iran.
But the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, though it has not been shown to have been directed by al-Qaida, demonstrates the dangers of Islamic radicalism in a Middle East filled with new, more representative governments that replaced authoritarian regimes overthrown during the Arab Spring.
And the insurgency waged by al-Qaida’s North African affiliate in Mali — put down, at least temporarily, by a French military intervention with American intelligence help — shows how al-Qaida’s ideology has spread to parts of Africa destabilized by poverty, bad governance and ethnic grievances. In January, al-Qaida-linked militants killed three Americans and 35 others in an attack on an Algerian natural gas plant.
U.S. intelligence leaders are also expected to reiterate their assertions of recent years that cyberattacks pose a grave risk to American national security. Over the last year, American officials have been increasingly willing to name China as the source of a massive campaign to siphon intellectual property from U.S. and Western firms through hacking.
“Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale,” Donilon said Monday. “The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country.”