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US Spy Chief Warns of Space Wars, North Korean Nukes, and Cyber Threats

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper presented what he described as a "litany of doom" at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper presented what he described as a "litany of doom" at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, detailing the various national security threats currently faced by the United States.

"Unpredictable instability is the new normal," Clapper said. "It's a cliche but it's true — in my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I cannot recall [facing] a more diverse array of challenges and crises than we do today."


One of the main topics during the hearing was North Korea, which launched a long-range rocket on Sunday carrying what it claimed was a satellite. The launch, which violated an international ban on North Korea developing ballistic missile technology, came just weeks after the country's fourth test of a nuclear bomb.

Clapper said US intelligence indicated that North Korea was following through with its 2013 plan to expand, refurbish and reboot its nuclear programs, including a uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon and a plutonium reactor that has been dormant since 2007. Clapper told lawmakers that Pyongyang was "committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that's capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, although the system has not been flight tested."

Related: How North Korea's Rocket Launch Could End Up Screwing China in a War Against the US

Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, added that North Korea's space launch "highlights Pyongyang's commitment to diversify its missile forces and nuclear delivery options."

For the second consecutive year, space wars were high on the agenda during Clapper's presentation to the senators. There are about 1,300 active satellites currently jostling for orbit around the globe, providing communications, weather forecasts, planetary surveillance, and GPS navigation. But some militaries also use those satellites for defense purposes. Last year, the administration of President Barack Obama budgeted $5 billion to enhance America's defensive satellite operations, while Congress has urged more spending on "offensive" space operations.


'We must be prepared for a so-called cyber armageddon. But the reality is that we have been living with this threat for some time.'

Clapper said US intelligence indicates that 80 countries are currently "engaged in the space domain," and some nations have a firm grasp on the US defense strategy in space. "Russia and China understand how our military fights and how heavily we rely on space," Clapper said. "They are both pursuing disruptive and destructive satellite systems."

Clapper stressed that cybersecurity continues to be the number one security concern for the US. The intelligence chief said he anticipates tech innovation to have "an even more significant impact on our way of life" in the coming years, and that "innovation is central to our economic prosperity, but it will bring new security vulnerabilities."

Related: US Cyber Command Will Easily Find 6,000 Hackers for its Online Offensive

Intelligence agencies are watching for "ideologically motivated hackers," Clapper said, particularly from North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran. "If they choose, they can do great harm, and their methods are expanding in diversity on a daily basis."

His remarks on Tuesday coincided with the release of the Obama administration's proposed budget for 2017. The budget includes a $19 billion increase in cybersecurity funding, up 35 percent from last year. As part of what's been dubbed "The Cybersecurity National Action Plan," the president will designate a high-level federal official to coordinate cybersecurity measures across government and civilian agencies.


Clapper referred to two notable hacks in the last year: The Iranian hack into the Sands Casino Corporation, and later the attack on Sony, which the US blamed on North Korea, but he said Russia and China continue to have the most "sophisticated" cyber intelligence programs in the world.

Clapper also noted that Moscow is keen to flaunt its military might, as demonstrated by its venture into Ukraine and other "aggressive" military actions. He said Putin is the first leader "since Stalin" to expand Russia's territory. The spy chief warned of getting caught up in another "Cold War-like spiral" with Russia.

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"I think the Russians are fundamentally paranoid about NATO," Clapper said. "They're greatly concerned about being contained and are of course very, very concerned about missile defense, which would serve to neuter what is the essence their claim to great power status, which is their nuclear arsenal."

Online activity by the Islamic State (IS) also continues to be a concern, Clapper said, noting that the group has demonstrated "unprecedented online proficiency," not just in terms of recruitment and propaganda, but in its ability to hack and release sensitive information about American military personnel. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, generally remains "a formidable threat" to American security and the "preeminent global terrorist threat," Clapper said.


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"ISIL's leaders are determined to strike the US homeland," he said.

Although intelligence indicates that IS will make "incremental gains" this coming spring in Iraq, Clapper said the group's manpower and territory are shrinking, and it's generally on the defensive. He added, however, that the rate of foreign fighters going to join the ranks of IS and other extremist groups continues to be "without precedent." He also noted that IS was the first extremist group to use chemical weapons — specifically mustard gas — since Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attack on Tokyo's subway in 1995.

Clapper said there's "no evidence thus far" that Iran is moving toward any violation of the nuclear arms agreement it signed with the US last year.

A low grumbling over the curtailing of US intelligence programs in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations underpinned the hearing. Senator John McCain, who presided over the hearings, said in his introductory remarks that "we cannot afford to believe that our intelligence agencies are omniscient and omnipresent, especially after years of sequestration and arbitrary budget caps." Clapper said that the scaling back of US intelligence amounted to "hubris" that was "dangerously misleading."

"Intelligence is not like in the movies," Clapper said. "Not every phone call will be intercepted."

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that a remark about "cyber armageddon" from Clapper's 2015 address to the Senate Armed Services Committee was made this year.