Cyber Still A Top Concern In Intelligence Community’s Global Threat Assessment

Cyber threats against the U.S. remain a top concern of the intelligence community, according to an annual threat assessment, which identifies Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as posing the greatest menace in this domain.

The cyber threat “is one of my greatest concerns and top priorities,” Daniel Coasts, director of National Intelligence, told a Senate panel on Tuesday. He said businesses, and federal, state and local governments in the U.S. are under cyber attacks by enemies every day.

Former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), the  Director of National Intelligence. Photo: U.S. Senate.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. Photo: U.S. Senate.

Coats, alongside other key members of the intelligence community, testified before the Select Committee on Intelligence for its annual Worldwide Threats Hearing. His 28-page written statement of the record, entitled “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” says that Russian, China, Iran and North Korea will use low-cost cyber operations “to achieve strategic objectives unless they face clear repercussions for their cyber operations.”

The Trump administration is developing a deterrence policy but officials at the witness table said the U.S. still lacks a deterrence policy for cyber operations.

Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said “we have to change this current dynamic because we’re on the wrong end of the cost equation.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who questioned the witnesses about U.S. cyber deterrence policy, said
"we are trying to fight a global battle with our hands tied behind our back.”

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said it’s not true that the U.S. hasn’t done anything to respond to cyber attacks, noting that actions have been taken by the Trump and prior administrations. He declined to discuss specific actions the U.S. has taken to respond to cyber incidents from adversaries. The open hearing began in the morning and was followed by a closed session in the afternoon.

Coats’ written assessment also says that Russia will continue to operate an influence campaign, “especially through cyber means,” as means to “exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States” and “encourage anti-US political views.” The 2018 mid-term congressional elections “are a potential target for Russian influence operations,” the assessment says, with Coats noting in his oral remarks that Russia believes its past influence operations have been “successful.”

Terrorists, trans-criminal organizations and individuals also use cyber operations to carry out strategic objectives, Coat said, adding that “some of these actors, including Russia, are likely to pursue even more aggressive cyber attacks with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances.” He said political elections in the U.S. and its allies remain “opportunities to undermine our democracy, sow discord, and undermine our values.”

Rogers warned that the overall cyber threat will worsen given the expansion of systems and devices that are connected, commonly called the Internet of Things.

“And I would argue if you look at the Internet of Things, if you look at the security levels within those components, folks, this is going to orders of magnitude,” he told the senators. “If we think this is a challenge now, just wait, it’s going to get much, much worse exponentially from a security perspective.”

Another “major threat to the United States and to our allies” is weapons of mass destruction, with North Korea the “most volatile and confrontational WMD threat in the coming year,” Coats said. “In addition to its ballistic missiles tests and growing number of nuclear warheads, North Korea will continue its longstanding chemical and biological warfare programs also.”

Terrorism, in particular from Sunni violent extremist-led organizations ISIS and al-Qaida, is still a threat to the U.S. and its allies, Coats said. The “most prevalent” terrorism threat to the U.S. is from homegrown Sunni violent extremists in the U.S., he added.

Coats also warned that political partisanship is damaging U.S. economic and national security.

“I am concerned that our increasingly fractious political process, particularly with respect to federal spending, is threatening our ability to properly defend our nation, both in the short-term and especially in the long-term,” Coats said in his oral remarks, a concern isn’t included in the global threats assessment. “The failure to address our long-term fiscal situation has increased the national debt to over $20 trillion and growing. This situation is unsustainable as I think we all know and represents a dire threat to our economic and national security.”

Coats said his reason for including spending and debt concerns in his remarks was “personal,” adding that he felt a “responsibility to raise this issue” given its effect on the U.S. military and the intelligence community.

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