Global Terrorism Is Top National Security Woe for Near Future
The United States has strengthened its homeland security in the 15 years since terrorists attacked the nation, and significant work to reform the intelligence community means the critical agencies now communicate better with each other than ever before. Yet the world remains a perilous place, and security likely will worsen in the near future. U.S. officials not only fret over escalating threats posed by enduring rivals such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, but they also must grapple with the persistent fight against terrorism and mounting vulnerabilities of the cyber realm, according to the top intelligence leaders who addressed a slew of troubling issues at the two-day Intelligence & National Security Summit (INSS), an unclassified event co-hosted by AFCEA International and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA).
The conference, held in September in Washington, D.C., provided the community with an opportunity to take a good, hard look internally as the nation prepared to observe the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The senior intelligence officials offered a sobering point of view as they analyzed a variety of issues, from immediate concerns such as this month’s contentious presidential election to the impact of climate change on national security and the roles information technology and cyber threats will play in shaping it, as well as what terrorism will look like five years from now.
Talk about terrorism permeated the summit as the dominant threat for the foreseeable future. The intelligence community will contend with the growing number of militants, hardened by years of war in the Middle East and by the anti-Islamic sentiment spreading across Western nations, said FBI Director James Comey. Global terrorism is a multifaceted challenge constantly adapting to countermeasures to defeat it, making it appear as though terrorists always are one step ahead of authorities. The new face of terrorism, officials said, can be seen in al-Qaida, the rise of the Islamic State, insurgent groups growing in Africa, radicalization of European youths and the increase of lone-wolf attackers in the United States. In fact, the terrorist threat today is “broader, wider and deeper than any point in our past,” with homegrown terrorism a mounting problem for national security, said Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The rapid evolution of technology makes it difficult to gauge how developments will affect national security, offered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “Tech areas like artificial intelligence, health care and agricultural, self-driving cars and 3-D printing have the potential to revolutionize our lives for the better, or they could present vulnerabilities that are very hard to predict,” he said. Even climate change will play a significant role, Clapper offered. “I think climate change is going to be an underpinning for a lot of national security issues,” he said. “So many things [are affected]: The availability of basics like water and food and other resources, which are continually going to become matters of conflict, and already are, between and among countries.”
U.S. adversaries outmaneuver counterterrorism progress and exploit security shortcomings, from airline security weaknesses when they flew airplanes into buildings during the 9/11 attacks to now abusing the lack of safeguards in the cyber world, offered John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department.
Not all of the officials’ assessments were tainted with an air of doom and gloom. There is tremendous potential for good to be gained in emerging technologies, such as harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and integrating that with human analysis, said Adm. Michael Rogers, USN, director of the National Security Agency and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. “Machine learning helps you get to scale to address global problems, at the same time you need to ask yourself, ‘How does that fit, and where is the human dynamic in all this?’” Adm. Rogers said. “If you can’t get to some level of AI or machine learning with the volume of activity that you’re trying to understand when you’re [defending] networks from activity of concern, if you can’t get to scale, you are always behind the power curve. It’s got to be some combination of the two.”
For full event coverage, including videos, photos and presentations, go to url.afcea.org/INSS16archive.