It’s been two years since the heads of the top US intelligence agencies last came to Congress for an update on global threats; they skipped 2020 amid tensions with former president Donald Trump. In the Biden administration, though, the public hearing was back on Wednesday. Their message: With sprawling crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, the gravest threats to US national security have ballooned into complicated and interconnected specters that the intelligence community can only warn about.
In a public hearing before the Senate intelligence committee, and a corresponding report released on Tuesday, directors of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, CIA, and FBI laid out their agencies’ assessments. They highlighted cybersecurity and offensive hacking as a major topic in light of the SolarWinds attacks, which they firmly attributed to Russia. They also pointed to technological innovation, particularly advances from China, that threaten to undermine the security of US infrastructure.
The directors also emphasized that where authoritarian governments wield technical mechanisms for digital control, such as tools for invasive surveillance, democracies struggle to emerge and endure. And as anti-democratic movements sweep the world, and as US adversaries like Iran and North Korea expand their digital and kinetic arsenals, the US faces an increasingly complicated geopolitical climate. Lawmakers and the intelligence community both also raised the possibility that terrorist groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will resurge as a result of the US’s planned exit from Afghanistan in September.
After two years away from these public hearings, a transition of power in the US, and the world-changing impacts of the pandemic, the report and hearing seemed to simmer with angst over the scale and scope of so many vast, amorphous threats.
“During the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the inherent risks of high levels of interdependence. And in coming years, we assess the world will face more intense and cascading global challenges, ranging from disease to climate change to disruptions from new technologies and financial crises,” ODNI director Avril Haines told Congress. “This looming disequilibrium between existing and future challenges and the ability of institutions and systems to respond is likely to grow and produce greater contestation. For the intelligence community, this insight compels us to broaden our definition of national security.”
Complicating the challenge of new and emerging threats is the reality that all the old ones remain. The directors ticked off updates on the US’s longtime adversaries as well as the worldwide challenges posed by weaponized disinformation, attacks on election integrity, infrastructure security, and growing domestic terrorism within the US. And numerous discussions returned to the question of waning democratic influence.
“The problem of erosion of democracies is a very real one in many parts of the world—those that have established democracies and those where democratic governance is quite fragile,” said CIA director William Burns. “That has partly to do, I think, across the board with questions about the ability of democratic governance to deliver. The challenge is … to help restore that faith.”
This tension between words and actions was apparent in the global threats report itself as well as the hearing. Both senators and the agency directors focused on the intelligence community’s “blind spot.” The intelligence heads said that the IC would benefit from more access to the domestic internet, signals from within corporate networks, and more information about individuals’ digital activities. The “blind spot” also relates to longtime debates about encryption and what the FBI calls the “going dark” problem. During the hearing, NSA director Paul Nakasone lamented the time it takes to get warrants for certain searches and said that US adversaries are all too aware of how much time they have to work with if they launch digital attacks like the SolarWinds hack from inside US entities.
Senator Ron Wyden (D–Oregon) countered, though, that the agencies weren’t even able to detect a historic series of breaches in federal networks during the SolarWinds campaign, even though the intelligence community has full access to monitor every part of federal networks.
“The hacking of nine federal agencies somehow went unnoticed,” Wyden said. “So what I’d like to see is if we can all agree, before seeking new powers to surveil the domestic internet, we all ought to be working together—you, DHS, all the agencies, so that more can be done to detect hacking that’s going on in our own networks.”
The threat report also emphasized the scrutiny on not only the digital civil liberties and privacy promises that established democracies make, but how well they actually deliver on them. Many repressive regimes increasingly rely on censorship, tools for web control, and aggressive targeted surveillance of dissidents, journalists, and religious and ethnic minorities to further their societal reach.
“Authoritarian and illiberal regimes, meanwhile, probably will point to democracies’ embrace of these tools to justify their own repressive programs at home and malign influence abroad,” the report warns.
With so many disparate issues for the intelligence community to anticipate and track simultaneously, the global threats reports and hearings always have a somewhat sprawling and open-ended quality. That’s partly because on many topics, from US foreign policy to pandemic response, the apolitical intelligence community’s job is only to provide insight, not to take action or shape policy. And as the impact of unprecedented natural disasters increasingly intersects with geopolitics, their becomes more an art of divination every day.
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