Written by Fred Fleitz
Over the last week, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees held their annual unclassified hearings on worldwide threats facing the United States. Testifying to the hearings were Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, and DIA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
The news media’s treatment of the hearings was predictably poor and superficial. Here is what the Center for Security Policy believes are the top six take-aways that you need to know from these hearings.
All five witnesses stressed the increasing threat from a reconstituted and decentralized al-Qaeda organization which is expanding its influence, especially in Syria and North Africa. CIA Director Brennan warned about al-Qaeda activity in Iraq and Syria, telling the House Intelligence Committee: “We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad. There are camps inside of both Iraq and Syria that are used by Al Qaeda to develop capabilities that are applicable, both in the theater, as well as beyond.”
The U.S. intelligence community sees growing risks from cyberwarfare because government and personal functions are increasingly tied to the Internet and potential offensive cyber operations by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, terrorist organizations, and cyber criminal organizations. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia continues to target U.S. and allied personnel with access to sensitive computer network information. China is trying to weaken U.S. dominance of Internet governance while continuing an expansive worldwide program of network exploitation and intellectual property theft.
In response to questions by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), DIA Director Flynn discussed a recent damage assessment by his agency on the leaks of classified information by former NSA technician Edward Snowden. According to Flynn, the Snowden leaks will make it harder to detect IEDs threatening U.S. troops in Afghanistan, will put all U.S. servicemen at risk, and provided America’s adversaries important insights into U.S. military vulnerabilities. Director Clapper added that the vast majority of Snowden’s leaks probably had nothing to do with NSA programs.
These findings are important because they put the lie to claims by Snowden and his supporters that he only leaked information about NSA programs and was careful not to release information that would cost lives or endanger U.S. security.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), a liberal senator with whom the Center has rarely seen eye-to-eye on national security matters, surprised everyone at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing by supporting the NSA metadata program in its current form and opposing President Obama’s proposal to move the metadata database to private parties. Rockefeller said the metadata program, an NSA collection effort to gather telephone records, is an important counterterrorism tool and is already subject to numerous laws and regulations to ensure that it does not violate the privacy of Americans. Rockefeller said he opposes the president’s proposal to take the metadata database away from NSA and giving it to private parties because such a move would put this information in the hands of personnel subject to significantly less stringent security clearance rules than NSA personnel, resulting in serious privacy and security risks. The Center for Security Policy commends Senator Rockefeller for stating his strongly held views on the metadata program which are identical to a recent Center study. (Click HERE to read the Center’s January 27, 2014 study, New Center Study Warns President Obama’s NSA Reforms Jeopardize National Security.)
With three exceptions, the members at both intelligence hearings were civil, professional and took seriously witness testimony about increased threats from terrorism, cyberwarfare, and leaks of U.S. intelligence. The three exceptions were Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senator Mark Udall (D-UT) and Senator Mark Heinrich (D-NM).
Instead of listening to the testimony about dire foreign threats facing this country, Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich took the nonsensical position that U.S. intelligence agencies are the main threat to American liberty. Wyden accused top intelligence leaders of lying to the American people and a “reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law.” Udall and Heinrich attacked the CIA for refusing to cooperate with the committee’s investigation of the Bush-era enhanced interrogation program. (Why is the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014 still investigating the Bush administration?) Heinrich accused the CIA of making inaccurate public statements about a secret CIA study on enhanced interrogations, claiming that the agency has tried to “intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight.”
The witnesses mostly ignored questions posed by Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich, noting that they were not germane to a hearing on global threats. To her credit, Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated that she agreed with this response.
Not surprisingly, the scaremongering and histrionics of Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich received significant press play. This is unfortunate since their views were not shared by other Senate or House Intelligence Committee members. The three senators represent a small minority who tried to exploit an open hearing because a bipartisan majority has repeatedly refused to support them in committee votes.
During the February 4th House Intelligence Committee threat hearing, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann read aloud most of a February 3 Washington Free Beacon article by Bill Gertz that said U.S. intelligence agencies last week urged the Obama administration to check the Obamacare website (healthcare.gov) for malicious software after learning that web developers linked to the authoritarian Belarus government helped developed the site. Mr. Gertz wrote that there have been cyber attacks against the United States originating from Belarus in the past and said an NSC spokeswoman recently commented on an intelligence report about involvement of Belarus programmers in constructing the Obamacare website.
Bachmann was so perplexed that all of the witnesses claimed to be unaware of this issue and the Free Beacon article that she individually polled each witness. The Center shares Congresswoman Bachmann’s concern. It is impossible to believe that the DNI, CIA, DIA and FBI Directors knew nothing about the Gertz article given their large support staffs, the fact that this article was 24 hours old and comments made about this issue by an NSC spokeswoman. What is more, Mr. Gertz reported that the Obama administration also directed the intelligence community to withdraw its report.
The most charitable explanation is that the witnesses feigned ignorance so they could avoid commenting on the controversial issue of the Obamacare website’s security vulnerabilities.
In response to the Free Beacon piece, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and Congresswoman Bachmann demanded an independent security evaluation of the Obamacare website.