Decoding the 2023 threat assessment: These are America’s top menaces
The U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2023 Annual Threat Assessment offered few surprises when Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines reviewed its highlights before Congress. The most significant threats still come from the usual suspects: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. There was some cautious foreshadowing in this year’s report, however, concerning new pandemics and the risks regional conflicts pose of spilling over.
Among the more disconcerting findings was that transnational racially and ethnically motivated extremists “remain the most lethal threat to U.S. persons and interests.” That’s shorthand for domestic terrorism. According to updated statistics released by the FBI on March 13, hate crimes surged nearly 12 percent between 2020 and 2021, based on hardly complete data — suggesting that the actual numbers are likely higher. It’s a politically thorny issue for the U.S. that continues to defy sufficient reckoning given privacy and civil liberty concerns on both sides of the aisle. Debate routinely revolves around the opaque dividing line between First Amendment free-speech guarantees and probable cause enabling law enforcement to investigate an impending crime — a threshold that domestic terrorism statutes might help remedy.
Politically, the report reflected the Biden administration’s persistent yet often frustrated determination to maintain its China focus, given what I suspect the White House considers the unwanted distractions of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Middle East’s chronic churn. The language reflects urgency and concern that, unchecked, China’s vast and holistic military, economic and technological enterprise could provide it with capabilities that soon might exceed and overwhelm U.S. defenses.
Haines was not subtle in identifying China as America’s top concern. The assessment depicts China as an ascending power that could challenge the U.S. across a broad spectrum, even as it portrays Russia as being in decline, but with significant remaining capabilities that could prompt unpredictable and devastating consequences.
According to the Intelligence Community, China “will continue efforts to achieve President Xi Jinping’s vision of making China the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage,” as Beijing presses “its regional claims and sovereignty over Taiwan.” In contrast, the report observes that “Moscow will remain a formidable and less predictable challenge to the United States in key areas during the next decade but still will face a range of constraints.” According to the analysis, Russia “probably does not want a direct military conflict with U.S. and NATO forces, but there is potential for that to occur.”
Technological competitiveness was one of the categories pushing China over Russia as America’s greatest threat. The assessment cautions that Beijing’s pursuit of dominance in critical economic markets “could pose a significant risk to U.S. and Western manufacturing and consumer sectors if the government of China was able to adeptly leverage its dominance for political or economic gain.”
Cyber was another — the judgments noting that “China probably currently represents the broadest, most active, and persistent cyber espionage threat to U.S. government and private-sector networks.” Forecasting the risks, should the U.S. face a major conflict with China, the analysis suggests that Beijing “almost certainly would consider undertaking aggressive cyber operations against U.S. homeland critical infrastructure and military assets worldwide.”
Notwithstanding the unpredictable circumstances that could yet escalate Russia’s war in Ukraine into direct military conflict with the U.S., the assessment balances how Moscow’s losses “will require years of rebuilding and leave them less capable of posing a conventional military threat to European security, and operating as assertively in Eurasia and on the global stage.” This analysis is supported by British Defense Minister Ben Wallace’s contention that Russia has 97 percent of its forces deployed to Ukraine and is suffering losses on a staggering scale akin to World War I. The U.S. estimates Russian deployment at 80 percent.
Regarding Iran, the community cautions how Tehran’s leaders remain “committed to developing surrogate networks inside the United States, an objective it has pursued for more than a decade.” It’s hardly news that Iran continues to employ a hybrid, asymmetrical approach that “will pose a threat to U.S. interests in the region for the foreseeable future.” But the Intelligence Community’s acknowledgement that Iran seeks to bring war to Americans by advancing capabilities within the U.S. warrants greater concern.
Iran’s terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland historically has depended on proxies, predominantly Lebanese Hezbollah. But its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has grown bolder in risk taking and more influential in decision making — concern well founded in their often careless outsourcing of assassinations and kidnappings to criminal elements and, potentially, its own cadre.
On the nuclear threat, the assessment acknowledges that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device” but “has accelerated the expansion of its nuclear program.” The assessment cautions that “Iranian officials probably will consider further enriching uranium up to 90 percent” if sanctions relief is not forthcoming — in itself a possible trigger for a kinetic response, if not from the U.S., then from Israel.
The intel community’s take on North Korea observes that “North Korea’s military will pose a serious threat to the United States and its allies by continuing to invest in niche capabilities designed to provide Kim with a range of options.” That includes a credible nuclear option advanced by an “increasingly capable missile force designed to evade U.S. and regional missile defenses.” Casting North Korea as a strategic threat that shouldn’t be dismissed, the report warns that Pyongyang’s cyber capabilities “have matured and are fully capable of achieving a range of strategic objectives against diverse targets, including a wider target set in the United States.”
The assessment skirts politics to clinically suggest that “climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to U.S. national security interests.” The findings outline how climate change’s increasing physical effects “are likely to intensify or cause domestic and cross-border geopolitical flashpoints,” a phenomenon playing out in Africa and the Middle East. And the assessment notes that countries still not recovered from COVID-19 “globally remain vulnerable to the emergence or introduction of a novel pathogen that could cause a devastating new pandemic,” suggesting that “drivers for disease emergence persist and are on the rise.”
Whereas the terrorism we’ve come to know of the Islamic jihadist type, and for which the U.S. fought a global campaign over 20 years, is relegated still to among our less pressing, or certainly, existential concerns, there’s still acknowledgement we’re far from immune: “U.S. persons and interests at home and abroad will face a persistent and increasingly diverse threat,” the findings suggest, including “transnational racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVE)” — a catch-all for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and politically motivated domestic elements like those active in the Jan, 6, 2021, Capitol assault.
While observing how “ISIS and al Qaeda suffered major leadership losses in 2022, degrading external operations and capabilities,” the community acknowledges that the Islamic State’s “ideology and propaganda, however, almost certainly will continue to inspire attacks in the West, including in the United States.” Although not dismissed, the al Qaeda threat from Afghanistan is depicted as contingent upon the Taliban, but acknowledged how the organization’s international affiliates remain capable of attacking U.S. interests.
Not to be overlooked is the language ascribed to bioterror threats stemming from rapid advances in dual-use technology. The assessment cautions how such developments “could complicate detection, attribution and treatment of emerging bio threats.” That concern is compounded by the availability of more affordable, highly advanced commercial technologies and artificial intelligence that extends the threat beyond state actors and organized groups to lone wolves. Letters laced with anthrax that killed five Americans and sickened 17 in late 2001 were almost certainly the work of a lone wolf who took his own life as the investigation moved closer to him.
The Annual Threat Assessment exercise enables the U.S. Intelligence Community to communicate with the public, employing transparency that the preservation of sources and methods allows to highlight its priorities, flag trends and secure buy-in. As an unclassified exercise, it raises skepticism among some, and lost sleep for others, being short on supporting details or information about what’s being done.
This year, as always, it will spark debate owing to partisan divisions and special interests. And maybe raising consciousness and stimulating conversation concerning our national security is a sufficient achievement itself.
Douglas London (@douglaslondon5) teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for more than 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a chief of station and as the CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia. He is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.”
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