John Albright/Icon SMI/Newscom

John Albright/Icon SMI/Newscom

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “In my almost fifty 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.”

Clapper and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, presented the U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2013 threat assessment to the committee on April 18.

North Korea’s nuclear missile capability was the major focus of the hearing. Also of concern to Members of Congress were China’s power projection, growing military, and cyber capabilities; nuclear missiles from Iran; and the conflict in Syria. These are some of the gravest threats, but they do not paint the whole picture. Some of the threats to U.S. security that were not discussed are:

  • Russia’s cyber capabilities. Russian cyber attacks receive little attention, even though they are more sophisticated than those coming from China, according to Heritage’s Steve Bucci. The hackers who attacked Estonia’s government agencies and private companies in 2007 were identified as members of the state-affiliated youth group, Nashi. Russian criminals also contract their cyber capabilities to state intelligence services.
  • Iran’s cyber capabilities. Bucci also described Iran as one of the top three cyber offenders, “Nowhere near as sophisticated as [China and Russia], but with a lot more malice.” Iran does not have the economic links to the U.S. that China or Russia do, so a cyber attack on the U.S. would not have as high a cost for them.
  • The Arctic opening. As ice recedes in the Arctic, new maritime passages open and more resources become available. While this does not present a threat in the traditional sense, the Coast Guard’s limited presence in the region inhibits the service’s ability to perform search-and-rescue missions, maintain awareness, facilitate traffic with icebreakers, and respond to emergency incidents. Ultimately, this limits the ability of the U.S. to ensure the rule of law and facilitate legitimate free trade.
  • U.S. military presence in Europe. It was announced in January 2012 that two permanent bases in Europe would close down. Permanent bases are key to U.S. interests, specifically the military’s ability to respond to crises in Eurasia and the Middle East, and to training missions with America’s closest allies. “[F]orward-based military capabilities in Europe allow the U.S. to project power and react to the unexpected more quickly and effectively,” said Luke Coffey, Heritage’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expert.

The myriad risks around the world need to inform the decisions made by Congress, especially regarding the funding and strategy behind U.S. defense and intelligence enterprises. Defense cuts are already set to limit military capabilities. Good intelligence will therefore become increasingly important to mitigate these shortfalls. However, budget cuts affect intelligence capabilities as well.

Clapper, in an oft-repeated statement before the House Intelligence Committee in April, illustrated the effects of cutting U.S. intelligence capabilities:

Unlike more directly observable sequestration impacts like shorter hours of public parks or longer security lines at airports, the degradation to intelligence will be insidious. It will be gradual, almost invisible, until of course, we have an intelligence failure.

While the elements of U.S. national security face budget reductions, the world is not any safer today than yesterday. U.S. national debt and out-of-control federal spending can be fixed, but using defense and intelligence resources solely as a fiscal tool will create more problems than it solves.

Genevieve Syverson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.