MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The director of national intelligence was on Capitol Hill today. James Clapper delivered his annual assessment of the top security threats facing the U.S. He said cyberattacks are a growing danger. Iran and North Korea are becoming capable of producing weapons of mass destruction. Turmoil in the Middle East is hurting U.S. interests.
The list of global threats was familiar, but this year, budget battles in Washington also got a mention, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, came before the Senate Intelligence Committee today in a bit of a sour mood. He led off complaining that he had to speak publicly at all. An open hearing on intelligence matters, he said, is a contradiction in terms. And then, before getting to any international problems, Clapper hit a domestic one, the spending cuts mandated under the sequestration package.
JAMES CLAPPER: Let me now be blunt for you and for the American people. Sequestration forces the intelligence community to reduce all intelligence activities and functions without regard to impact on our mission. In my considered judgment, as the nation's senior intelligence officer, sequestration jeopardizes our nation's safety and security, and this jeopardy will increase over time.
GJELTEN: Another new issue Clapper raised today was all the hostility coming from North Korea and its swaggering young leader, Kim Jong-un, the recent missile and nuclear weapon tests and the threats to attack Washington.
CLAPPER: I'm very concerned about the actions of the new young leader, very belligerent, and the rhetoric that has been emanating from the North Korean regime. The rhetoric, while it is propaganda-laced, is also an indicator of their attitude and perhaps their intent.
GJELTEN: As with all threat assessments, the worrisome developments get the most attention. There's a cloud around every silver lining. Take Syria. Opposition to the dictator Bashar al-Assad is growing and getting stronger, but mixed in with that opposition, Clapper said, are some dangerous radical elements.
CLAPPER: The bad news in all this, I believe, with respect to the opposition, of course, is the increasing prevalence of the al Nusra Front, which is the al-Qaida in Iraq offshoot that has gained strength, both numerically and otherwise, in Syria.
GJELTEN: A growing al-Qaida presence in the Syrian opposition could portend big problems ahead. In Iran, while the government is developing its nuclear capabilities, there's no evidence yet it has made the political decision to actually build a nuclear weapon but neither has it forsworn making a bomb.
Republican Susan Collins of Maine quoted the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, Marine General James Mattis, as saying Iran's stubbornness on this score shows that sanctions imposed on Iran haven't made much of a difference. Clapper pushed back.
CLAPPER: The sanctions are having a huge impact, and I think clearly that is going to have an influence on their decision making calculus, and we see indications of that, but where I do agree is the sanctions thus far have not induced a change in Iranian government policy.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: Well, I think the fact that they haven't produced a change suggests that General Mattis is correct in saying that they're not working.
GJELTEN: In recent years, unconventional security threats have gotten more attention - global economic stress, climate change, the potential for conflicts over food and water. Terrorism has dropped a notch or two on the official threat list. In the number one position, the danger of a devastating cyberattack. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.