An erratic North Korea, with its nuclear weapons and increasingly belligerent tone, poses a serious threat to the United States and East Asia nations, the director of National Intelligence warned Tuesday in the annual accounting of the threats worldwide.
In his extensive overview, James R. Clapper told Congress that a less decentralized terrorist network has significantly altered the threats while the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East and North Africa has created spikes in the dangers facing American interests in the regions
The intelligence chief offered a sober assessment of threats from potential cyber attacks, weapons of mass destruction and the months-long civil war in Syria. North Korea, Iran and Syria stirred the most concern as the Obama administration and Congress weigh the effectiveness of sanctions against Pyongyang and Tehran.
Clapper testified just days after North Korea's communist regime said it was scuttling the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and has maintained peace on the peninsula for more than half a century. The administration slapped sanctions against North Korea's primary exchange bank and several senior government officials.
North Korea, led by its young leader Kim Jong Un, has defied the international community in the last three months, testing a long-range missile and a third nuclear bomb.
"These programs demonstrate North Korea's commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat to the United States, and its efforts to produce and market ballistic missiles raise broader regional and global security concerns," Clapper told the Senate Intelligence committee.
While the intelligence community has figured that Pyongyang's nuclear efforts are designed for deterrence, worldwide prestige and coercive diplomacy, Clapper conceded that that the United States does not know what would be the trigger that would prompt North Korea to act to preserve Kim's regime.
Pressed during the hearing, Clapper said he was "very concerned" about Kim actions, which has included tough talk as well as a recent invitation to former basketball star Dennis Rodman.
"The rhetoric, while it is propaganda-laced, is also an indicator of their attitude and perhaps their intent," Clapper said. "So for my part, I am very concerned about what they might do. And they are certainly, if they chose ... could initiate a provocative action against the South."
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general in charge of U.S. Strategic Command said he is "satisfied" that existing U.S. missile defenses can defend against a limited attack from North Korea.
Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler also said he is confident the country is adequately defended from a limited attack by Iran, "although we are not in the most optimum posture to do that today."
The Intelligence panel hearing also sought, in part, to rebuild some trust between the nation's top intelligence officials and senators who complain they have been refused administration documents and other information that are necessary for congressional oversight.
Joining Clapper at the witness table were newly minted CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Philip Goldberg.
At one point, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., questioned Clapper on whether the National Security Agency is eavesdropping or otherwise collecting data on Americans in the U.S. The NSA generally monitors telephone and Internet traffic overseas, but was authorized by the Bush administration after Sept. 11 to collect data within the United States to track al-Qaida.
That program stopped in 2007 but fueled suspicions about whether a White House might trample Americans' civil and legal rights in the name of safeguarding against terrorists.
"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden asked Clapper.
"No, sir," Clapper answered.
"It does not?" Wyden pressed.
Clapper quickly and haltingly softened his answer. "Not wittingly," he said. "There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect — but not wittingly."
The intelligence chief said that in Syria, President Bashar Assad's inability to quash the uprising increases the possibility that he will use chemical weapons against his people.
"We assess that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people," he said. "In addition, groups or individuals in Syria could gain access to chemical weapons-related material."
The United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war, which started two years ago against Assad's rule. Clapper said Assad's days are number, but added that he did not know "how many days."
The intelligence chief said Iran has become so entrenched in Syria that it likely will have some sort of foothold in a post-Assad government.
In assessing Iran, the report stated flatly that Tehran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security and influence and "give it the ability to develop a nuclear weapon." But the report stopped short of saying a decision has been made.
"We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons," the report said.
Clapper explained that in the last year, Iran has made progress in working toward producing weapons-grade uranium. However, the report said Iran "could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of weapons-grade uranium before this activity is discovered."
Last week, Gen. James Mattis, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told Congress that sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working, and added that Tehran has a history of denial and deceit.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Clapper if he agreed with Mattis.
"Not completely. I think the ... the sanctions are having a huge impact on Iran. And I think clearly that that is going to have an influence on their decision-making calculus. And we see indications of that. But where I do agree, at least to this point, it is — the sanctions thus far have not induced a change in Iranian government policy."
Collins said that fact suggests Mattis was correct in saying that the sanctions are not working.
In his assessment, Clapper warned about the impact of automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in March 1, arguing that it will degrade the ability of the intelligence community.
The top U.S. intelligence chief said the budget cuts have jeopardized America's security and safety — and will only get worse over time. He said the reductions will shave about $4 billion from intelligence budgets. He said that amounted to about 10 percent of national intelligence programs.
Clapper said if the government is not careful, "we risk another damaging downward spiral."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the committee, pointed to successes in the war on terror — 105 terrorism-related arrests in the United States in the past four year and 438 convictions since Sept. 11, 2001.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.