Assessing The Threat Assessment

This week, the nation's intelligence agencies produced their annual report on all the things that the United States should be worried about. It's called the "threat assessment," and it covers hot spots, despots, terrorists, troublemakers and worrisome developments that could affect U.S. national security.

NPR's Scott Simon talks with NPR Intelligence Correspondent Tom Gjelten about the annual U.S. threat assessment. The biggest security threat in the world? The faltering economy.

Global Economic Crisis Is Threat To U.S. Security

The official threat assessment this year was delivered by Dennis Blair, President Obama's new director of national intelligence. Though he has been in the position for just two weeks, Blair faced the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence alone — showing that the Obama administration sees him as the head of the entire U.S. intelligence community. In the past, directors of the CIA and the FBI joined in the presentation of the threat report.

Blair said rising unemployment and reduced welfare spending are leading to political instability in many countries, with a growing danger of civil unrest and violence — potentially directed against the United States. He warned, "In recent years, it seems we've had more security problems from states that have been in trouble than we have from strong states that have been an adversary to us in the traditional way."

In Africa and other conflict-prone areas, Blair noted, economic growth rates have dropped off dramatically. "When those growth rates go down, my gut tells me that there are going to be problems coming out of that, and we're looking for that," Blair said.

The flow of refugees could increase, potentially presenting problems for U.S. homeland security. The report warned the economic crisis could also hurt the U.S. standing, with more countries ready to challenge U.S. leadership.

As for al-Qaida, it has been relegated to second place on the threat list, in part because of attacks against the network in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. According to Blair, "Senior al-Qaida leadership is considerably less powerful, able to communicate with its forces, able to plan and conduct attacks than it was a year ago, two years ago."

The attacks in Pakistan, Blair said, have been "as damaging to the group as any since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001." On the other hand, the Taliban is gaining strength in Afghanistan; the government of President Hamid Karzai is losing legitimacy, Blair warned.

In the Middle East, Blair was hard-pressed to find a single bright spot, especially given Israel's attacks on Gaza and Iran's pursuit of a deliverable nuclear weapon.

Russia gets a lot of attention in the new threat assessment; it's said to be challenging U.S. interests. So is China, though in different ways. As commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Blair had substantial dealings with China, and he was careful to point out that relations between Taiwan and China have improved in recent months.

Blair had some advice for the Obama administration regarding Latin America policy. U.S. influence with Latin countries, he warned, could "erode unless the United States opens its markets to them permanently."

During the campaign, Obama actually criticized trade agreements with Mexico and Colombia. But as president, he has said he wants his intelligence experts to tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear.

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