DNI: Cyber sits atop list of most pressing national security threats

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week that cyber is the No. 1 international threat to U.S. national security and stability.

“We face a complex, volatile and challenging threat environment,” he said during prepared testimony. “The risk of interstate conflict is higher than any time since the end of the Cold War — all the more alarming because of the growing development and use of weapons of mass destruction by state and nonstate actors. Our adversaries, as well as the other malign actors, are using cyber and other instruments of power to shape societies and markets, international rules and institutions, and international hotspots to their advantage.”

He said the U.S. is competing with peer- and near-peer states for technological superiority, adding that foreign competitors “seek to sow division in the United States and weaken U.S. leadership” using conventional and asymmetric means.

“Frankly, the United States is under attack — under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the United States,” DNI Coats told the Senate panel. “From U.S. businesses to the federal government to state and local governments, the United States is threatened by cyberattacks every day.” Russia, China, Iran and North Korea pose the greatest cyber threats, he noted, but others use cyber operations to achieve strategic and malign objectives.

“Some of these actors, including Russia, are likely to pursue even more aggressive cyberattacks with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances,” DNI Coats said. “Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies, using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy, sow discord and undermine our values.”

“Iran will try to penetrate U.S. and allied networks for espionage and lay the groundwork for future cyber attacks,” he added. “And North Korea will continue to use cyber operations to raise funds, launch attacks and gather intelligence against the United States.”

DNI Coats also said China presents a major and growing cyber threat. [source]

Analysis: Two things jump out at me regarding DNI Coats’ assessment that cyber is our greatest current threat.

One, our conventional and nuclear strength remains unparalleled in the world, leaving peer competitors to rely on asymmetrical means of attack; two, our peer competitors are well-aware of our reliance on technology in our daily lives — so much so they understand that disrupting our society with cyber attacks would essentially lead to a breakdown in the civil society. 

A third thing about DNI Coats’ warning: It should serve as a strong reminder that while the U.S. may be making strides in protecting its vital infrastructure, much of it remains vulnerable to cyber attack.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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