The threat from inside the Beltway


The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing last week on global threats to US security following the release of the intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment last month. If the Senators’ questioning of DNI James Clapper and DIA chief Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during the hearing is any indication, Congress is most concerned with one threat in particular: themselves.

Since the end of the Cold War, the defense establishment and intelligence community in the United States has emphasized the complexity of the international security landscape. According to Clapper, however, “in my almost 50 years in intelligence, I do not recall a period in which we confronted a more diverse array of threats, crises and challenges around the world.” His full testimony regarding these threats presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence over a month ago (read the 30 page document here), describes a series of worrying developments.

For the first time, cyber threats top the list. In his testimony last week, Flynn remarked last week that cyber attacks represented the most dangerous threat to US security today. Illustrating this point, the Washington Post reported yesterday on a study by government and industry analysts who examined 120 cases of government cyber espionage last year and found that China was responsible for 96% of them. Our insatiable thirst for networked technological solutions has made us incredibly vulnerable to cyber attacks from state and non-state actors that can harm nearly every facet of our daily lives, starting with an under-defended power grid but also government and financial institutions.

International terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda have become weakened and decentralized due to persistent counterterrorism operations, but regional organizations still present a threat. Organized transnational crime, the continued proliferation of WMD, and limited access in some regions to basic resources such as food and water all present challenges to US and global security. The countries of particular concern are no surprise: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Russia, China are among them. Of particular concern to Clapper is the continued unrest in Northern Africa and the greater Middle East, regions with large numbers of unemployed young males already discontent and easily radicalized.

Clappers eariler testimony had noted that «many countries important to the United States are vulnerable to natural resource shocks that degrade economic development, frustrate attempts to democratize, raise the risk of regime-threatening instability, and aggravate regional tensions…extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.» Future conflicts over resources appear increasingly likely.


But the senators seemed only marginally interested in these developments last week. The two issues that received most attention from the Committee included the suspected administration cover-up surrounding the attack that killed four US diplomats in Benghazi in 2012, and the threat posed by the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The remarkable aspect of both of these “threats” is their origin: the United States Congress.

To accuse the Obama administration of poor political handiwork has become a cliché, as it seems to misstep almost as much as it steps. The talking points which Susan Rice used during a whirlwind tour of Sunday talk shows last year prior to the election emphasized a storyline based on a protest mob co-opted by extremists, rather than a carefully planned attack by extremists that might have had links to Al Qaeda. For the administration and (mostly) the intelligence community, this constituted the best information available so soon after the attack. For Republicans, this constitutes a major cover-up designed to preserve an important talking point in the president’s reelection campaign: the weakening of Al Qaeda and killing of Osama bin Laden.

It’s hard to see the continued relevance from a security standpoint. Congressional Republicans yesterday issued a report on Benghazi  and point to evidence that the State Department may have rejected requests for increased security prior to the attack (though the extra forces may not have helped, as there were based in Tripoli), and again focused on Rice’s talking points after the attacks. It’s obvious that mistakes were made and funding for improved security at diplomatic compounds has been granted. The episode hardly reeks of serious institutional malfeasance in need of a special investigator or select committee.

But that didn’t seem to bother Senators Ayotte or Cruz. And their colleagues in the House of Representatives were equally focused on Benghazi that same morning, as Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on his department’s 2014 budget request. Benghazi looks more like a political hammer with which the Republicans can’t seem to stop using to hit the administration, and, perhaps more importantly, an excellent way to politically damage the presumptive 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.


The other sinister threat facing the country appears to be the spectre of a decade of sequestration cuts, which Clapper and Flynn agreed would be an unmitigated disaster for US intelligence gathering capabilities. Reminiscent of an earlier hearing last month with the Service Chiefs, Clapper seemed to argue that if his budget is to be reduced to such an extent, the increased risks inherent in “doing less with less” should at least be made clear to the public. He noted:

Twenty years ago, I served as director of DIA, the job Mike Flynn has now. And we were then enjoined to reap the peace dividend occasioned by the end of the Cold War. We reduced the intelligence community by about 23 percent. During the mid – and late ’90s, we closed many CIA stations, reduced HUMINT collectors, cut analysts, allowed our overhead architecture to atrophy, neglected basic infrastructure needs such as power, space and cooling, and let our facilities decay. And most damagingly, we badly distorted the workforce.

The “downward spiral” was reversed after 9-11, but Clapper argued that these types of budget cuts will lead to an “insidious” degradation to intelligence: “It will be gradual and almost invisible until, of course, we have an intelligence failure.”

It should be pointed out that the sequestration legislation was designed by Congress to be so “insidious” and unacceptable that the Supercommittee charged with finding budgetary compromise would feel the gun to their heads and find a workable solution. It failed to do so, and the politics of sequestration shifted. The Democrats, confident that they now had leverage to enact tax hikes without cutting entitlements in any meaningful way, warned of the misery that sequestration would bring to the average American. Republicans, returning to their small government roots after a decade of splurging, began arguing that sequestration wasn’t so bad after all. Government needed trimming anyway, and it would be nice to remove the Democrat’s political leverage.

Meanwhile, the cuts have gone into effect and will continue for another ten years according to the current legislation. The American public has pronounced itself unimpressed with both parties posturing on the subject. And the national security entities responsible for implementing the cuts are now screaming about exactly the type of indiscriminate and inflexible cuts they are forced to make, while Congress shakes its head and complains about the evils of “sequestration” in a fit of collective amnesia.

Obviously, Senate hearings are more about political theater than information dissemination. Even so, the members of the Armed Services, after hearing testimony regarding threats to the nation’s security, might simply look in the mirror. Despite DNI Clapper’s worrying observation that the global security landscape is the most complex he’s see in fifty years, the threats Congress appears most preoccupied with seem to emanate from inside the Beltway.


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