Globalization, Instability Define Threat to West

December 2000
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Hazards ranging from hostile nations to malicious microbes pose challenges for policy makers.

The defining force behind current and future threats is the technology-driven globalization that dominates societal trends. This worldwide sea change is both delineating and empowering various political and economic factions that, just a few years ago, would have had neither the desire nor the opportunity to act. Now, they are joining the ranks of known rogue nations that pose a significant threat to Western security and interests around the world.

The spread of information technology and its accompanying economic growth has given many small nations the opportunity to prosper in the international marketplace. However, many other countries will be left behind economically. These disadvantaged nations are likely to be a source of future threats to U.S. national security, according to intelligence community officials.

The instabilities in turn are likely to be compounded by natural events. Population growth increases national geopolitical stresses both internally and externally. The emergence of new and deadly infectious diseases threatens to further destabilize entire transnational regions while similarly menacing humanitarian and peacekeeping forces that attempt to rescue people and restore order. Concurrently, moving these forces abroad opens them up to technology-enabled terrorists always on the lookout for targets of opportunity.

“Technologies are becoming more and more accessible to more and more people,” John C. Gannon, chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), says. “And, some of those people do not have noble intentions.”

The NIC, which comprises a chairman, vice chairman and 12 national intelligence officers, reports to the director of central intelligence. Along with his role as NIC chairman, Gannon serves as assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production, and he also is chairman of the National Intelligence Production Board.

In addition to small-nation adversaries, Gannon describes another threat source as nonstate actors. These include political movements and terrorist groups who, like the small disadvantaged countries, must resort to asymmetrical warfare to inflict damage on overwhelmingly stronger opponents.

According to Gannon, both nation-state and nonstate-actor threats have access to four assets that were unavailable before the evolution of the global information economy. The first asset is information. Gannon explains that readily available information could include instructions on how to build systems, capabilities and vulnerabilities of targets, and where major targets of opportunity can be found at any given time.

The second element is access to technology. Gannon notes that, while U.S. military superiority is not likely to be challenged over the next 15 to 20 years, the country’s leaders must worry about small adversaries acquiring just enough technology to improve their systems to have the capacity to inflict significant damage on the United States and its forces. These could range from simple items such as handheld communications systems to technologies that substantially enhance weapon systems.

A third item is access to money. Both nation-states and nonstate actors can move funds around the world in ways that were not possible a few years ago. Osama Bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi Arabian expatriate who has launched terrorist attacks on Western targets from his base in Afghanistan, is a living example of this capability. Narcotics traffickers and advanced terrorist organizations also can take advantage of this capacity.

The fourth element is deception. New technologies make it much easier today for both types of adversaries to cover their tracks. Money laundering is less transparent, computer crime can be difficult to trace, and physical threats such as bombs or other weapons of mass destruction can be set for activation autonomously, by time delay, or by remote control. An enemy can strike at its target from the opposite side of the world.

Gannon divides issues facing the intelligence community between threats and challenges. While clear threats do exist, other nations and groups rate the label of challenges. These challenges constitute areas of significant interest to the United States, and its intelligence community must support vital decision making with its collection and analytical capabilities.

Russia and China meet the criteria of challenges. Gannon explains that the United States is not necessarily threatened by either one currently, but both countries do pose challenges to U.S. policy makers. U.S. officials must understand the countries’ motivations, intentions and aspirations as both regional and world leaders. This understanding is necessary to avoid either nation evolving from a challenge into a threat.

“If you look over the next 25 years, it is an open question [as to] what kind of China you are going to have,” Gannon explains. “With Russia, it is very much an open question about what we are going to see there in the next 10 to 15 years. There is a good deal of instability now in the political and economic situation there; they still have a major strategic arsenal that we have to worry about. Without saying that Russia is a threat to us the way it was during the Cold War—which it clearly is not—there are some real concerns about Russia,” he adds.

The threat list comprises some familiar nations. Despite its recent rapprochement with South Korea and the United States, North Korea is still a threat, Gannon says. It is committed to developing a long-range ballistic missile system, and while production has been in abeyance since 1994, the nation continues to test components. North Korea “could very easily change its mind and pick up where it left off,” he warns.

To truly believe that this threat has eased, the United States would have to see signs that North Korea clearly is moving to dismantle its missile system and that the political environment has changed. Gannon notes that this ballistic missile program is a “wildly disproportionate kind of threat from a small country that is unable to provide basic goods and services to its people.” He continues that the nation spends a good percentage of a shrinking gross domestic product on its missile systems and a nuclear program. This gives North Korea “life support” through a limited ability for international blackmail, but it does not help the country in the long term.

The positive signs emerging from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s engagement with his two adversaries represent an opening “that does have the potential for creating an engagement with the international community for a dialogue that would reduce the threat from North Korea,” Gannon allows. “But clearly, we are not there yet. We have to leave North Korea very clearly on the high-concern side of a threat assessment until you see sustained [nonthreatening] behavior on the part of North Koreans.”

Iran is another country that Gannon describes as a problem. Its activities include programs for weapons of mass destruction, a long-range missile capability, the use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy, and active obstruction of the Middle East peace process. On the other hand, “very significant political and demographic changes” are afoot in that nation. Gannon notes that 60 percent of the Iranian population is 25 years of age or younger, and a reformist trend is gaining momentum through the ballot box.

“You have a new generation of politics in Iran, which is very encouraging,” he observes. “After Israel, Iran is now the major democracy in the Middle East in terms of the people being able to vote and having a sense of participation in the body politic. That is all for the good.” The future may hold some change in Iran’s use of terrorism and in its engagement in Middle East politics in general. Gannon continues that, in the next 10 to 15 years, Iran could return to a position of constructive leadership in this difficult part of the world.

Yet, the nation is likely to continue its programs for weapons of mass destruction. However Iran perceives its own interests in the region, these weapons give it power and geopolitical significance. The hope would be a change in Iranian motivations and intentions to use these weapons, Gannon explains.

Iraq remains a rogue state. Gannon credits United Nations sanctions and other restrictions imposed on Saddam Hussein with limiting his ability to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. However, within the Iraqi elite lies the technical ability to rapidly restore all three programs. On that basis, as well as on its ability to produce long-range missiles, Iraq still is a threat, Gannon warrants.

“If you take off the shackles [from Iraq], almost certainly the threat will be back in a relatively short period of time,” he emphasizes. If Saddam Hussein goes on the offensive again, he is more likely to strike at neighbors and U.S. forces in the Gulf region, as opposed to employing his weapons of mass destruction against U.S. territory.

“If Saddam Hussein were to send a missile to the United States, he would have to want that to be his last dramatic act,” Gannon warrants. “He could expect massive and sustained retaliation.”

Nonstate actors are increasing their challenge to U.S. interests and, in some cases, have established cross-discipline alliances with like-minded groups. The narcotics traffickers who have embroiled Columbia in a civil conflict have increased U.S. concern for that region. Drug money is funding a left-wing guerrilla movement that threatens the South American nation’s democratically elected government. Drug money also is affecting Mexico.

While the current threat leader among nonstate actors is Osama Bin Laden, virtually any terrorist group with an international network is capable of inflicting damage on the United States, Gannon points out. Many of these terrorist groups seek safe haven in a single state, but the terror network takes on a structure that transcends identification with a single nation. This is a growing phenomenon, he adds, because it has become easier for the terrorists to obtain needed funds and establish necessary contacts.

Gannon states that the most significant threat facing the United States is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. While the three most worrisome rogue nations all have various development programs, small countries and nonstate actors seeking these weapons are more likely to acquire them than to develop them indigenously, he offers. Many nuclear, chemical and biological weapons require considerable expertise and infrastructure to develop. This is especially true of nuclear weapons. While some chemical and biological agents could be manufactured by terrorists and rogue states, the enabling technologies and expertise are more easily acquired from existing institutions.

Gannon notes that the probability of nuclear weapon transfer is less than that of chemical or biological agents. Any nuclear devices appearing on the open market would be considerably expensive, where chemical weapons are much less expensive and are less difficult to obtain. Biological weapons are increasingly easy to develop, but they offer “disincentives” for use, Gannon notes. Nonetheless, the intelligence community is paying close attention to identifying groups that might use biological weapons, how they would access material, and the motivations and intentions of people that would actually employ biological warfare.

“If you look at the revolution in biological sciences, the ability to develop biological strains that would go after certain groups or characteristics in a society is clearly growing,” Gannon warns. “We know that there are some very ugly groups out there that we think would be tempted to use it. The capability and the access to those capabilities is growing, and you cannot apply a rational actor model [to these groups].”

He continues, however, that terrorists probably are more likely to resort to conventional explosives rather than nuclear, chemical or biological attacks. A well-placed conventional blast can accomplish many terror campaign goals without the logistical and political complications inherent in the other three weapons of mass destruction.

New areas of vulnerability are cropping up. For example, Wall Street could be the target of major information operations aimed at crippling the U.S. economy by shutting down the stock exchange or transferring large sums of money out of the country. This would be a disaster on an almost unimaginable scale, Gannon notes. The best defense against cyberspace attacks would involve examining hacker activity, observing the capabilities that they demonstrate, and noting the vulnerabilities that they expose, he adds.

The threat in cyberspace is complemented by threats to U.S. space systems, Gannon notes. Several nations, including possibly nonstate actors, could have the ability to damage satellites or their ground installations. The intelligence community is wrestling with how to evaluate that threat and predict its evolution over the next several years, he adds.

“As far as the cyberspace challenge is concerned, the more you know, the more it scares you,” Gannon declares.

Biotechnology is another emerging area of concern. The medical advances emerging from research “clearly will come on line over the next 15 years,” Gannon predicts. “Unfortunately, many of these technologies are dual-use that, if put in the hands of terrorists or those who have grievances, can be used for biological warfare purposes.” The challenge is to understand the growing capabilities, how to access them, and the motivations and intentions of those who would actually use them as biological weapons.

Gannon predicts that, over the next 15 years, small regional conflicts will engage the United States and the international community to an increasing degree. Refugee crises easily can cause regional instability that can spill over borders and affect many nations.

A related problem is the spread of disease. An NIC report, “The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States” issued earlier this year, warned of a rising threat to U.S. national security from international public health crises. Several factors including antibiotic-resistant microbes, increased trade and travel, regions lacking adequate health care, and the proliferation of new and incurable disease strains both threaten U.S. armed forces overseas and exacerbate social and political instabilities in strategically important areas.

More than 30 new infectious disease agents have been identified over the past 27 years, and many of these are incurable. These microbes tend to emerge in places where health care is inadequate, and these same locales tend to be in unstable parts of the globe. Regional instabilities born of infectious diseases could lead to greater peacekeeping burdens on the West. This could require far greater discretion in choosing these types of missions, Gannon allows. Similarly, humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping forces could be at greater risk from killer viruses than from enemy combatants, who could be easily overwhelmed in a conventional confrontation.

This problem is especially acute in Africa, which is riven with turmoil and crises from southern Sudan to northern Angola. Gannon notes that this represents 6,000 kilometers of potential instability in which the United States is likely to be engaged. “We are going to have a chronic, long-term series of problems related to those issues in sub-Saharan Africa,” he warns. “The news is not likely to turn good there for some time.”