Intelligence Report, Committee Point to International Threats

Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King pressed intelligence officials about Russia, China, and cybersecurity during the first meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 29th. (Submitted photo)

By Lura Jackson

 

The United States is facing several potentially significant foreign threats, reads the recently-updated National Intelligence Strategy. A similar tone has been taken by the Senate Armed Service Committee, which convened for the first time this year on January 29th. Both the report and the proceedings of the committee – including comments by Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King – are summarized below.

The National Intelligence Strategy

“We have to become much more agile, more innovative, more creative,” summarizes Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in the National Intelligence Strategy. The report, released on January 22nd, provides a strategic outline for the intelligence community for the next four years. Coats emphasized that we as a nation are facing “significant changes in the domestic and global environment” and the importance of preparing for and recognizing “emerging threats and opportunities.”

Technology is one of the primary drivers of change in the current global strategic environment. While the federal intelligence community has extensive experience in conducting conventional operations, Coats writes that “advances in technology are driving evolutionary and revolutionary change across multiple fronts. The [Intelligence Community] will have to become more agile, innovative, and resilient to deal effectively with these threats and the ever more volatile world that shapes them.” Specifically, Coats described the increased interest and development in space, cyberspace, and computing by traditional adversaries as being a major threat to the nation’s security.

Attempting to prepare for potential threats in a world that is changing rapidly is not an easy task, and some of what Coats covers as an approaching danger was once limited to the world of science fiction. “Advances in nano- and biotechnologies have the potential to cure diseases and modify human performance, but without common ethical standards and shared interests to govern these developments, they have the potential to pose significant threats to U.S. interests and security,” Coats writes. Nanotechnology involves creating structures as small as one billionth of a meter.

Another major challenge of the present that will be exacerbated as current trends continue is the increasing number of humans migrating away from war-afflicted or economically-stressed areas to cities. Coats identifies climate change, infectious disease outbreaks, and transnational criminal organizations as other factors that will further push people from their homes.

Coats’s report named the primary adversaries of the next four years as being Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, respectively, each of which has developed conventional weapons. “Multiple adversaries continue to pursue capabilities to inflict potentially catastrophic damage to U.S. interests through the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which includes biological, chemical and nuclear weapons,” Coats writes.

The 36-page report, viewable in full at www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/National_Intelligence_Strategy_2019.pdf, outlines seven mission objectives that will help the Intelligence Community prepare for the threats facing the nation, including in the areas of counterintelligence and security, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism.

The Senate Armed Services Committee

While the National Intelligence Strategy provides an outline of threats, the Senate Armed Services Committee – as the legislative arm granted military oversight – is, in part, responsible for acting on those threats. The committee’s first hearing of the year focused on Russia, China, and cybersecurity.

Regarding Russia and China, the committee heard from Elbridge Colby, Director of the Defense Program Center for a New American Security; Ely Ratner, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies, Center for a New American Security; and Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council.

Wilson described the need for “permanent deterrence” in Europe to deter Russia’s ongoing threat, a position he proposed could be garnered by the bolstering of military presence. Wilson advised against the trend of creating “tumultuous relations within our alliances” and said that the nation’s intense polarization make it more vulnerable. “If we are concerned about near-peer competition from Russia and China, the United States must invest not only in its own capabilities but also in its global alliance structure.”

Colby spoke to the importance of maintaining “favorable balances” of power in key regions of the world, including East Asia, Europe and the Persian Gulf, and emphasized the need for ongoing alliances to maintain them. “These favorable balances preserve our ability to trade with and access the world’s wealthiest and most important regions on fair grounds, and prevent their power from being turned against us in ways that would undermine our freedoms and way of life.”

Recognizing these points, Senator King asked, “Is there anything that Vladimir Putin would like better than the U.S. withdrawing from NATO?” Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Colby asserted that the dissolution of NATO is a key piece of Russia’s long-term goals. Senator King is a member of the Senate North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Observer Group, which monitors NATO commitments and capabilities and ensures that the Senate is kept informed of NATO work.

On cybersecurity, the committee heard from Dana Deasy, Department of Defense Chief Information Officer; Vice Admiral Nancy Norton, Director of Defense Information Systems Agency; and U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Dennis A. Crall, Principal Deputy Cyber Advisor and Senior Military Advisor for Cyber Policy.

Deasy, presenting the combined testimony, described how the Department of Defense [DoD] is “transforming the cyber architecture” by developing “data-driven infrastructures” that will enable the department to meet current and emerging cyber threats. He elaborated on how cyber automation can be used as a “defensive ‘force multiplier,’” including expounding on existing intelligence-informed sensors that already successfully combat seven million automated mitigations per day.

In summarizing, Deasy painted a grim but realistic picture. “We believe a cyber capable adversary will focus their efforts on disrupting DoD’s front line mission systems during a conflict or in preparation for conflict by exploiting vulnerabilities we did not realize we had.” Deasy highlighted the need for interagency cooperation and continued support for flexible operations as being key to combatting the nation’s “ever-changing dynamic cyber threat.”

“Deep Fakes” and transparency

In addressing the intelligence officials, Senator King specifically pointed to one kind of cyber threat that is increasingly emerging in the public sphere – that which utilizes “deep fake” technology. King described “deep fake” technology as that which is “to create essentially a false reality,” such as “an apparent speech by a candidate where different words are coming out of their mouth than what they actually said.”

King impressed the need for transparency if and when the DoD identifies that a “deep fake” has been created and spread. “My concern is it’s one thing for the Intelligence Community to know this is happening, but if they don’t inform the people who are being victimized, who are being attacked in this way, I think that really blunts the effectiveness of the availability of the intelligence… I just want to be sure our policies keep pace with the magnitude and accelerated nature of the threat.”

Returning to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’s report, he specifically pointed to appropriate transparency as being critical for the success of the Intelligence Community [IC] over the next four years. “Doing so is necessary to earn and retain public trust in the IC, which directly impacts IC authorities, capabilities, and resources.”