The Intelligence Community’s Official Worldwide Threat Assessment


Over the course of four and a half hours yesterday, May 11, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and senior intelligence community (IC) leadership testified to the Senate Select Committee on the IC’s worldwide threat assessment of both global and regional threats. Sitting with Coats before the committee chaired by Senator Richard Burr were CIA Director Mike Pompeo, NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Acting Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, DIA Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, and Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo. Here are some highlights from DNI Coats’ Statement for the Record that addresses issues related to everything from cyberthreats to space, from China, to North Korea, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other hot spots and spots that could become hot, demanding attention of both the IC and the international community.


Not surprisingly, cyberthreats and the myriad risks those threats pose to the security of the United States and our allies were central to Coats’ written submission and the committees’ hearing. Coats opens his record statement, “Our adversaries are becoming more adept at using cyberspace to threaten our interests and advance their own, and despite improving cyber defenses, nearly all information, communication networks, and systems will be at risk for years.” State actors that pose the greatest threats to national security, Coats writes, are Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Non-state actors like ISIS and international criminal networks leveraging the more and more popular evolutions of ransomware.

“In 2016, criminals employing ransomware turned their focus to the medical sector, disrupting patient care and undermining public confidence in some medical institutions,” reports Coats. Cyberthreats today, Coats explains, are about more than denial of service and hacking bank accounts, personally identifiable information (PII) or sensitive personal information (SPI). Besides more standard economic and security effects, adversaries are becoming more successful leveraging cyberwarfare tools and techniques for both physical and psychological outcomes. For instance, Coats describes that cyberthreats “from both states and non-state actors . . . distort the perceptions and decision-making processes of the target, whether they are countries or individuals, in ways that are both obvious and insidious.”

TERRORISM in Iran, attacks by isis

Terrorist activities inside the nation’s borders that are inspired by both state and non-state actors continue to pose a significant risk to national security. While, according to Coats, Iran is the “foremost state sponsor of terrorism [that] . . . will pose a continuing threat to US interests and partners worldwide,” that threat of terrorism is not some distant challenge. ISIS’ “ideological appeal, media presence, control of territory in Iraq and Syria, its branches and networks in other countries, and its proven ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world.” Indeed, ISIS is having an appreciable impact here in the United States by way of inspirational activity. According to Coats, homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) launching attacks inside the country’s border are a persistent and growing threat. Last year, Coats reports, nearly 20 HVEs were either arrested planning or killed carrying out terror attacks.

proliferating WMD

Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and Syria are all in on developing and proliferating weapons of mass destruction, what Coats describes as “a major threat to the security of the United States . . . .” While nuclear threat continues to grow, chemical and biological threats are advancing in proportion to advances in scientific research and developments that are shared worldwide at a rapid pace. “Biological and chemical materials and technologies—almost always dual use—move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them for legitimate and illegitimate purposes,” writes Coats.

On the nuclear front, Coats cites as cause for concern the likes of Russia’s ground launched cruise missile (GLCM) that violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. And, Coats assesses, Russia likely believes the advantages of the GLCM and other similar weapons under development outweigh the risks of international censure. In China, nuclear capabilities are becoming more mobile, Iran’s is using energy production as a cover for advancing weapons-grade technology while harboring the “largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East” and, simultaneously, Iran’s space program is likely simply a cover for developing more effective means to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles. “Progress on Iran’s space program,” writes Coats, “could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies.” North Korea, of course, continues its own work on nuclear weapons and tests for delivery systems that, in time, may range the continental United States.

Coats’ written submission is an excellent source for a general understanding of these threats, and others, to include threats posed by the expansion of conflict to space, human trafficking, global displacement of populations, and global warming that, in part, intensify regional tensions over natural resources.

And you can watch the entire hearing or read the Washington Post transcript of the hearing that expands well-beyond Coats written submission to more immediate questions of national security facing the nation.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.

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