from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Highlights of the Global Threat Briefings

February 12, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, “Worldwide Threats,” witnesses: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, February 9, 2016.

REED:  Are you confident that you could detect a serious deviation from the [Iran nuclear] agreements in sufficient time to give the executive options?

CLAPPER: Yes, sir, I am confident. My fingerprints are on the infamous weapons of mass destruction national intelligence assessment of October 2002. I was serving in another capacity then. So, I think we approach this with confidence, but also with institutional humility.

...

CLAPPER: I think the Russians fundamentally are paranoid about NATO. They’re greatly concerned about being contained and, of course, very, very concerned about missile defense, which would serve to neuter what is their -- the essence of their claim to great power status, which is their nuclear arsenal. So a lot of these aggressive things that the Russians are doing, for a number of reasons -- great power status, to create the image of being coequal with the United States, et cetera -- I think could probably -- could possibly go on and we could be into another cold war-like spiral here.

BLUMENTHAL: You made the point in response to Senator Reed and also in your testimony that the international community is, in your words, well postured to detect any violation by Iran of the nuclear agreement. Has there been any indication so far that it is moving toward a violation?

CLAPPER: No, not yet. Have no evidence thus so far that they have --they’re in a -- moving towards violation.

SESSIONS: We do know that North Korea will sell weapon technology, do we not? And have done so in the past?

STEWART: That’s true that particularly North Korea is a proliferator. That’s one of the principal ways they attempt to generate revenue is through proliferation. I worry, frankly, about more mundane things like MANPADS, which the North Koreans produce and proliferate throughout the world, which poses a great threat to -- to aviation.

SESSIONS: What about Mosul, city of one million, that would not have the heritage of ISIL and that kind of extremism? What are the prospects for turning the situation around in Mosul and freeing Mosul from ISIL’s…

STEWART: I’m less optimistic in the near-term about Mosul. I think there’s lots of work to be done yet out in the western part. I don’t believe that Ramadi is completely secure, so they have to secure Ramadi. They have to secure the Hit-Haditha corridor in order to have some opportunity to fully encircle and bring all the forces against Mosul.

Mosul will be a complex operation, and so I’m not as optimistic. As you say, it’s a large city. I’m not as optimistic that we’ll be able to turn that in the near-term, in my view, certainly not this year. We may be able to begin the campaign, do some isolation operations around Mosul. But securing or taking Mosul is an extensive operation and not something I see in the next year or so.

HEINRICH:  What’s the intelligence community’s assessment of the capability of Saudi and UAE ground forces? And how realistic do you think this proposal is? In other words, do you assess that they actually have the political will to potentially do that?

CLAPPER: Well, let me start with UAE, which is a very, very capability military, although small. Their -- the performance of their counterterrorist forces in Yemen have been quite impressive. I think -- certainly appreciate and value the Saudi willingness to engage on the ground. I think that will be a challenge -- would be a challenge for them if they were to try to take that on...

STEWART: Fully concur with the UAE forces whether they have the capacity to do both Yemen and something in Iraq, Syria is questionable for me…I think they’re having a tough -- they’re doing extremely well in Yemen, but the capacity to do more is pretty limited.

...

AYOTTE: Can you tell us what that cooperation has been and can we expect that North Korea will sell or share technology with Tehran that could expedite Iran’s development of ICBM missiles?

CLAPPER: Of late -- I have to be mindful of the setting here -- there has not been a great deal of interchange between Iraq and Iran -- or between North Korea and Iran on the subject of nuclear missile capabilities. But there has been in the past. We have been reasonably successful in detecting this. So hopefully we’ll, with appropriate.

AYOTTE: What do you make of the fact that the Iranians did, in fact, post JCPOA, in violation of existing U.N. resolutions, make two launches of ballistic missiles and I think you were asked about the sanctions that were put in place. Let’s just be clear, those sanctions weren’t very tough.

Do you think that those are going to deter Iran from continuing to develop its ICBM program?

CLAPPER: Well, the Iranians have conducted some 140 launches since the original U.N. Security Resolution 1929 that was imposed in 2010. And so 70 of those -- about half of them -- were done during the negotiations, given the fact that missiles weren’t a part of the negotiations.

So as far as these two launches are concerned, I think this was a deliberate message of defiance and that the Iranians are going to continue with their aggressive programs to develop their missile force.

FISCHER: When you mention about Iran and Moscow being able to work together on this, and maybe they’re -- what I heard was maybe they’re diverging in their support for Assad in keeping him in power, or giving him more leverage in a transition. Do you believe that is going to come to a head, again, in the short term, long term? And what are the consequences of that?...

STEWART: The Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely. The tactical relationship that Iran and Russia has today I suspect at some point, and it’s pretty hard to predict that some point, will diverge because they won’t share the stage. Iran wants to be the regional hegemon. If it has to compete with Russia in the longer term -- and again, I put months or years, I suspect that their interests will diverge because of competition as a regional power.

In the near term, though, their interest is simply to prop up the regime and the regime, in my mind, is not necessarily Assad. It’s the regime, first of all, that allows Russia to maintain its interests and allows Iran to control Syria -- greater Syria and parts of Lebanon. When those two things become tension points, where their interests, where Russia jettisons Assad or Russia pushes for his removal, I suspect that they will have at least a tactical breakdown.

COTTON: That was your point with Senator McCain earlier, it that it’s the worst global threat environment now in 46 years?

CLAPPER: Well, it’s certainly the most diverse array of challenges and threats that I can recall.

COTTON: Why is that?

CLAPPER: Well, I think it’s -- frankly, it’s somewhat a function of the change in the bipolar system that -- that did provide a certain stability in the world. The Soviet Union and its community, its alliance, and the West, led by the United States. And virtually all other threats were sort of subsumed in that basic bipolar contest that -- that went on for decades and was characterized by stability. When that ended, that set off a whole range of -- a whole group of forces, I guess, or dynamics around the world that have changed.

...

STEWART: I think the Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, would like to see more ground forces to match their commitment. Having said that, I do not assess that the Saudi ground forces would have either the capacity to take this fight on. As I’ve said earlier, the Emirates, very capable. Acquitted themselves well in Yemen, but lack the capacity to take on additional fight elsewhere. I think the idea is how do you get more U.S. skin in the game.

ROUNDS:  What do you believe constitutes an act of war in cyberspace? What do you assess it would look like? When does it become an act of war?

CLAPPER: That’s a great question, Senator, one that we’ve wrestled with. To a certain extent, it’s -- I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder, and this gets to the whole issue of cyber deterrence and all those kind of complex questions. But I think that’s a determination that would almost have to be made on a case-by-case basis depending on the impact.

SULLIVAN:  Director Clapper, last time you were here, you expressed concerns over the possible militarization of some of the formations that are being built up in that part of the world by the Chinese. And as you know, here we are a year later and that’s exactly happened in terms of 3,200 acres of new land, seven large land features, an air field, one of which is 10,000 feet long. What do you believe the Chinese -- what do you believe their goals are in the region?

CLAPPER: I think the Chinese are very, very determined to sustain their exorbitant claims in the South China Sea. They’ve had this nine-dash line, claim for sometime. They have sustained that. I think they will continue with building up their capabilities on these outcroppings and islands.

SULLIVAN: Do you think they’re clearly looking to militarize those outcroppings?

CLAPPER: Well, I think, not sure what, you know, what the definition of "militarize" is. Apparently president xi may have a different view, definition than we do. But I think when you put in runways and hangars, and start installing radars, doing port calls with Chinese navy and Chinese coast guard ships, they have not yet, I don’t believe, actually landed any military fighter aircraft yet. But they have tested the air worthiness, so to speak, of their air drones there with civilian aircraft…So, I think it’s very clear that they will try to exert as much possessiveness, if you will, over this area, this area and the South China Sea in general.

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KING: Where does North Korea gets its money? It doesn’t seem to have much of an economy and yet it’s building missiles, nuclear capability, military buildup. Where’s their funding?

CLAPPER: Well, their primary trading partner, of course, is China, by far, probably 90 percent of their trade. They -- and the biggest single export from North Korea to China is coal. It runs around -- they get about $1.2 billion a year from coal sales. And then, of course, it’s illicit finances. They have an organized approach to laundering money and this sort of thing. So, but most of their trade in North Korea is natural resource-heavy. And so the Chinese exploit that. So that’s where they get the lion’s share of the..

 

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Hearing, “Worldwide Threats to America and its Allies,” witnesses: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers, and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, February 9, 2016.

BURR: Director Comey, what’s the risk to law enforcement and to prosecution if when presented a legal court order a company refuses to provide the communications that the court has ordered them to?...

COMEY: Yeah, I’d say this problem we call doing dark, which as Director Clapper mentioned is the growing use of encryption, both to locked devices when they sit there and to cover communications as they move over fiber optic cables, is actually overwhelmingly affecting law enforcement because it affects cops and prosecutors and sheriffs and detectives trying to make murder cases, car accident cases, kidnapping cases, drug cases. It has an impact on our national security work. But overwhelmingly, this is a problem that local law enforcement sees….

COMEY: Especially with respect to devices, phones, that default lock. That is the overwhelming concern to state and local law enforcement, because all of our lives are becoming increasingly digital, those devices are going to hold the evidence of child pornography, communications that someone made before they were killed, before they went missing, the evidence that will be necessary to solve a crime, and including things, like I said, like car accidents. And so it is a big problem for law enforcement armed with a search warrant when you find a device that can’t be opened, even though the judge said there’s probable cause to open it.

As I said, it affects our counterterrorism work. You know, San Bernardino, a very important investigation to us. We still have one of those killer’s phones that we have not been able to open. It’s been over two months now, we’re still working on it. But it’s also occurred on the criminal side. A woman was murdered in Louisiana last summer, eight months pregnant, killed, no clue as to who did it, except her phone is there when she’s found killed. They couldn’t open it, still can’t open it. So the case remains unsolved.

WYDEN:  Director Brennan, in 2014 the CIA conducted an unauthorized search of Senate files, including the e-mails ofSenate staff investigating the CIA’s use of torture. The CIA inspector general later stated that the search involved improper agency access to Senate files and a review board that you appointed concluded that the search resulted in inappropriate access to the committee’s work product. You initially denied that the search took place, but the reports of both your inspector general and the review board show that this denial was at odds with the facts. After the facts were publicly exposed, the CIA even wrote an apology letter that you did not send.

Now, senior officials from the NSA, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have all testified that it would inappropriate for their agencies to secretly search Senate files without external authorization, but we still have not gotten an acknowledgment from you. So I think it would be important and I’d like to hear from you and I’d like to set the record straight that this would never happen again. Would you agree that the CIA’s 2014 search of Senate files was improper?

BRENNAN: This is the annual threat assessment, is it not? Yes. I think, Senator, as you well know, there were very unique circumstances associated with this whole affair. These were CIA computers at a CIA-leased facility. It was a CIA network that was shared between Senate staffers conducting that investigation for your report, as well as CIA personnel.

When it became quite obvious to CIA personnel that Senate staffers had unauthorized access to an internal draft document of CIA, there was an obligation on the part of CIA officers, who have responsibility for the security of that network, to investigate to see what might have been the reason for that access that the Senate staffers had to that document.

They conducted that investigation. I spoke to the chairman and vice chairman about it. I tried to make sure they understood exactly what the challenge was that we had. We conducted that investigation. I then subsequently referred the matter to the IG when the Senate leadership was concerned about the actions of CIA officers. I also subsequently convened an accountability board. And I think if you were to read those reports, including the accountability board, you would see that it determined that the actions of the CIA were reasonable given the very unclear and unwritten or unspecific understanding between the committee and CIA at the time in terms of what...

WYDEN: Mr. Director, my time is short, but that’s not what the inspector general or the review board...

BRENNAN: I respectfully disagree. I respectfully disagree with you, Senator.

WYDEN: I’d like to read the exact words, the exact words of the review board were it resulted in inappropriate access to SSCI work product. And your inspector general reached the same conclusion. And so the question here is, is when you’re talking about spying on a committee responsible for overseeing your agency, in my view that undermines the very checks and balances that protect our democracy and it’s unacceptable in a free society. And your compatriots in all of the sister agencies agreed with that. Now, you disagree?

BRENNAN: Yes, I think you’ve mischaracterized both their comments as well as what’s in those reports. And I apologized to the chairman and the vice chairman about the de minimis access and inappropriate access that CIA officers made to five e-mails, or so, of Senate staffers during that investigation. And I apologized to them for that very specific, inappropriate action that was taken as part of a very reasonable investigative action. But do not say that we spied on Senate computers or files. We did not do that. We were fulfilling our responsibilities.

WYDEN: I read the exact words of the inspector general and the exact words of the review board. You appointed the review board. They said nobody ought to be punished, but they said there was improper access. And my point is, in our system of government we have responsibilities to do vigorous oversight and we can’t do vigorous oversight if there are improper procedures used to access our files. My time is up.

BRENNAN: And Senator, I would say, do you not agree that there was improper access that Senate staffers had to CIA internal deliberative documents? Was that not inappropriate, unauthorized?

WYDEN: I can tell you, having talked at length to our staff, everything that we determined they did was appropriate. But I asked about CIA conduct, and two reviews, the inspector general and your review board, said it was improper.

BRENNAN: Yes, and I’m still awaiting the review that was done by the Senate to take a look at what the staffers’ actions were. Separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, Senator, goes both ways. And as I said, I apologized to the chairman and the vice chairman for the very specific, inappropriate access that agency officers who were investigating this incident made to those e- mails, very limited, inappropriate actions.

HIRONO:  As North Korea continues its nuclear weapons and missile programs, do you assess that locating missile defense systems closer to North Korea or locating on other carriers, say in Yokosuka, Japan, could provide greater deterrence against North Korean aggression?

CLAPPER: Well, that’s a policy call. But having said that, I think it would. I think even the discussion about missile defense certainly gets the Chinese attention. They would prefer, you know, THAAD, for example, not be deployed. But the North Koreans are making it hard, I think, for the Chinese to sustain that position. So to the extent that there are force displays, force presence, missile defense, I think, that could possibly have a deterrent effect on the North Koreans, but it could also incite them to do more.

BLUNT:  What do we think happens when suddenly Iran gets $100 million or $100 billion or maybe they get half of that, maybe they get $50 billion, what do we think happens in places where not very much money can drive a lot of bad activity? Four hundred million dollars in Yemen can make lots of bad things happen. Are we evaluating what happens when Hezbollah, when the Taliban, when the Houthi get this new infusion of money that I think everybody understands they are about to get?

CLAPPER: …Most of it so far has been taken up with what I would call encumbrances. In other words, due-outs, loans and other needs that Iran has. And those fall mainly in the economic arena. They need to recapitalize their whole oil infrastructure which has deteriorated if they’re going to do something with that. They have a lot of obligations and debts that they need to pay.

So the actual, and we can go into this in more detail in a classified setting, but what is actually flowed to the Quds Force, let’s say, has not been very much. And bear in mind that even during the period of heavy sanctions, the Quds Force, the IRGC, the Republican Guard and the Quds Force specifically, were, you know, they were funded and the Iranians found a way to sustain them. And of course, they themselves have business interests by which they generate their own income.

FEINSTEIN: Talk a little bit about Al Qaida’s presence in the country and whether it’s increasing or not and ISIL’s influence in the country. And how probable is the emergence of an ISIL stronghold in Afghanistan?

BRENNAN: Al Qaida, there’s probably about maybe a hundred or so, somewhere in that area, of Al Qaida members in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

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