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Intel Chief On Threat Assessment


Today, U.S. spy agencies weighed in with their annual report on threats to national security. And there's good news and bad news. On the one hand, fears are easing that the global financial crisis could trigger global instability. On the other hand, the threat of cyber attacks looks worse than ever. As for the threat from al-Qaida, it looks more complicated than ever.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is keeping track of all this (unintelligible) joins us now. Hi.


SIEGEL: Let's start with al-Qaida. For years we've been hearing that al-Qaida poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Still the case?

KELLY: Well, I'll let CIA Director Leon Panetta answer that. He said in his opening statement that al-Qaida and the fear of a future terrorist attack still what keeps him awake at night. His boss, the National Intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, was also there testifying. He said as long as the two top leaders: Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri are still out there, al-Qaida will keep trying to hit the U.S. homeland.

Now, having said all that, CIA Director Panetta argued the greatest threat that they're worrying about is not another 9/11, another attack on that scale, but rather that al-Qaida keeps adapting, keeps changing its methods in ways that make it much, much harder to detect, much harder to stop.

SIEGEL: You're talking about concerns about so-called lone wolf terrorists -attacks more like the one at Fort Hood?

KELLY: Well, that's one of them. The framework that they seem to laying out was - think about this in three ways: You still have core al-Qaida trying to attack the U.S. And the example that they pointed to of that was Najibullah Zazi, this is the Denver airport shuttle driver who was trying to plot bombs in New York City.

The lone wolf attack, home grown terrorisms, the suspected major, Nidal Hasan, at Fort Hood, as you mentioned, an example of self-radicalized people maybe already here in the U.S., as he was. Third thing that we saw that was relatively new this last year - ability of al-Qaida offshoot groups such as al-Qaida in Yemen sending people...

SIEGEL: (unintelligible)

KELLY: Right. Like the Christmas Day attack on the airplane inbound to Detroit.

SIEGEL: Okay, other topics - cyber security. How worried do the intelligence agencies say we should be?

KELLY: Well, this was interesting. Actually, Dennis Blair, the DNI, started his testimony with this. Used much stronger language than I've heard him use before, talked about malicious cyber activity, and I'll quote him, "is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication." He talked about things like the recent hacking attack on Google, said that should be a wakeup call, said that the U.S. information infrastructure overall severely threatened. So, this is something we're hearing more and more about, clearly something they're thinking about more and more.

SIEGEL: Now, the thinking used to be that in terms of the global economic downturn, that that posed a security threat. And now you say they say the threat has eased?

KELLY: It has eased. And this is interesting. That was actually the number one threat to U.S. national security that they mentioned at last year's hearing. So, a year ago the fear was you had this global economic downturn that would lead to unemployment, which would lead to civil unrest, which would lead to political instability, on and on and on and on. That has not happened, at least not to the extent that they feared it would. So this is a pocket of good news there.

The view from the intelligence community, at least, is that economic recovery is still tenuous. There could still be a lot of setbacks, but - and I'll quote him again, Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, says, "The past economic clouds darkening the whole strategic outlook have partially lifted."

SIEGEL: And threats from rising nuclear powers Iran, North Korea?

KELLY: The thinking - pretty consistent on this and not a lot new here. The assessment from the intelligence community remains Iran is keeping its options open to develop nuclear weapons, but that they haven't yet. They haven't necessarily decided to develop nuclear weapons yet. If they wanted to, they could probably within the next few years. That's the new language - the next few years.

On the North Korea front, as always, one hopes that they know a lot more than they're willing to say in open unclassified session. What they will say is Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons, missile programs pose a serious threat. That they have produced a nuclear device, although how many weapons North Korea may have they either don't know or will not say in open session.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly updating us on the threat assessment that U.S. intelligence agencies delivered today to Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.